Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Returning to Laos

Monks in orange robes whitewash the crenellated stone fence of the wat across from the hotel where I am staying in Vientiane. The Mekong River, outlined by bright lights on the Thailand side, watches sluggishly as the city gussies itself up in preparation for the That Luang festival at the end of November.

I am visiting with a friend, who will be honoured later in the month, both of us former volunteers and much to our combined delight we are being treated royally by the health project staff here in Vientiane. We don’t want to be medical tourists, gawking at tropical pathology but are enjoying the opportunity to participate in and observe aspects of health care from the sidelines.

Laos remains a poor country its edges softened by the graciousness of the people and the luxurious flora, hanging vines, bright flowers and luscious orchids. At a restaurant last night, an American sitting by himself, catches my eye as he leans over to ask if we are medical. I detect a barely visible slumping of my companions deeper into their seats and am on my way to serious obfuscation on behalf of my friends when he mentions mutual friends who had worked previously with some of those at the table and is invited to join us.

Today we visited Mahoset, the national referral hospital, and made rounds on the pediatric ward. An 8 month old breast-fed infant with congestive heart failure secondary to beriberi was blue and breathing rapidly when first seen but as the condition is not uncommon, he was quickly diagnosed and dramatically reverse by an infection of Vit B6. Beriberi is wholly preventable, caused by his mother eating a diet consisting almost solely of polished rice.

We also met Godiva and Godfrey, two goats munching quietly in the grass beside the laboratory building. Godiva and Godfrey provide the blood each week for the blood agar plates used in the microbiology lab. Business in microbiology is picking up so they may soon need three goats. The goats are tethered sufficiently apart so that pregnancy does not disturb this agreeable and functional relationship.

There isn’t a lot for the children on the pediatric ward or their sibs who are often brought with them to do on the wards, so some enthusiastic university students volunteer on the weekend to hold play time on the ward. There are puzzles, crayons and books for the kids, which seem to be as much a treat for the parents as for the kids. In general there seem to be a lack of toys, educational toys, for kids but the students have had some basic training and are committed in helping to change that.

At a local café where we have Lao coffee and mango sticky rice pancakes each morning, we meet up with a local child life educator who tells us how they are trying to establish social work as a profession in Lao. Many of the required courses were offered at first only under Women’s Studies, which proved a problem for interested Lao men to explain to their families.

There are some new finds in Laos including a wonderful new writer, Colin Cotterill, who uses Laos as a setting for an irascible, irreverent, charming Lao physician who comes out of retirement after a career with the Pathet Lao at 70 to be the national and only coroner. The books combine Alexander McCall Smith, Tony Hillerman and Mrs. Pollifax with a cast of well-drawn, equally engaging colleagues and friends who struggle against almost unmanageable odds with a delightful sense of humour. The Coroner’s Lunch, Thirty-Three Teeth and Disco for the Departed are the first three in the series. They are the kind of books that make you want to know more about Laos and Laotians.

Photos: Monks whitewash fence; orchids; Mahoset pediatric ward; Godfrey & Godiva; Main Wat



Blogger chanpheng said...

Nice to meet up with you! I've been down south and I'm heading back north on Friday. I've got a match for your monk picture:

I finished The Coroner's Lunch and might even put a review up, one of these blog entries!

6:12 AM  

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