In January each year, for the past 15 years, a team of Dutch medics visit Mahosot Hospital in Vientiane. They are from a not-for-profit organisation called Stichting Bridge The Gap.
The team specialise in dental surgeries like cleft palate, noma (an invasive disease of the mouth caused by poor dental hygiene and bacteria), and other disfigurations of the mouth and face.
Many of the inflictions can be fixed with relatively simple surgeries but few Lao people in the rural districts have the money or proximity to suitable healthcare.
Issues like cleft palate affect more than physical appearances. Babies are unable to breastfeed properly which can lead to malnutrition, dehydration and even death. They can also have trouble breathing and talking. Cleft, which also occurs in Western countries but is remedied at birth, can have serious repercussions in poor countries like Laos.
So, a free clinic like BTG with international medical surgeons are an absolutely godsend and people will travel from very far away to be there. A large portion of the patients are babies and children but there are also adults as well.
As you may know, I'm part of the WIG Laos group here in Vientiane, and Bridge the Gap (BTG) is one of our big health projects that we contribute to.
It's thanks to the money we raise at the not-for-profit WIG Bazaar each year that makes our involvement in this sort of project possible. WIG wants to encourage as many Lao people as possible to visit the clinic by ensuring that they won't be out of pocket at all.
WIG supports the BTG team before and during their visit in several different ways. We get the word out to the Lao provinces about the clinic (the hospital has primary responsibility for this), and we register the patients when they arrive. We pay for their transport costs (many travel for 3-4 days by bus to get here), and provide clothes, bedding and toiletries.
WIG also organises daily lunches for the medical team, who often work up to 12 hours day, stopping only to grab a bite between surgeries. And we give all the patients a daily food package of nutritious, protein-rich eggs, milk and fruit.
This year in 2018, I was lucky to be part of the WIG BTG team, led by our coordinator, Sylvie. All the photos in this post were taken by and belong to Sylvie and WIG Laos.
I manage social media for WIG Laos so my role with BTG was two-fold. First, I organised the volunteer schedule and the medical team lunches. And second, I put the word out to the Vientiane community about what we were doing, and how people could support us.
I posted a callout for volunteers for the clinic, toys for the kids, toiletries for the patients and lunches for the medical team. We had a great response, and the donations kept coming in.
I think there are lots of people who want to 'give back' in Laos but aren't sure how. There aren't too not many opportunities to get involved in a really meaningful project. So, volunteering for a free medical clinic that helps some of Laos's most disadvantaged people is a really tangible way to do that.
WIG has a relatively small volunteer team for BTG. There are Lao translators and people to visit the patients every day and hand out supplies. The Lao families wait patiently in the corridors all day long, for their numbers to be called. It's pretty boring but you never hear anyone complaining.
We set up kids' play creche to keep the little (and big) ones entertained. Everything was donated and there were also soft toys to give the kids to keep.
Most of these children have never had a soft fluffy toy of their own or a colouring book to draw in. They were hesitant at first to touch the toys but pretty soon, they were pulling things out of the box and laughing.
Every day, WIG volunteers brought hard boiled eggs and fresh bananas for the patient snacks. We packaged up little bags with these plus soy milk and sometimes instant noodles (which aren't at all nutritious but the Lao people love them).
Typically, in public Lao hospitals, the patient pays for everything from the surgery to soap and toilet paper. Those who have no family or friends in town will sleep in the hospital corridors and stairwells for the duration of their stay.
Sleeping on cold tiled floors isn't ideal so we tried to make them a little more comfortable with mats, blankets and mosquito nets. We gave out donated clothing, particularly winter clothes, and shoes. WIG also supplied the primary caregiver with a small daily stipend for other expenses.
One day in the second week, the clinic received a special visit from Sylvie's friend, Swiss film director Kamal Musale, to make a promotional video about WIG and BTG. He was accompanied by Lao film director and local celebrity, Mattie Do. They spent the day with the patients at the clinic.
It was sad to sad goodbye to both the patients and the medical team when BTG came to an end. So many happy little faces received life-changing surgery that will improve their futures vastly. Some will return again next year for another round (their muscles and skin need time to recover in between surgeries). Others will go on to have normal and (hopefully) healthy lives.
In 2018, the BTG clinic consisted of 132 patients, 92 surgeries, 40 volunteers, numerous donations and endless dedication, generosity and good spirit.
The BTG clinic is such a fantastic cause and experience, and one which resonated with all of our volunteers, as well as the medical team and Mahosot Hospital staff. It was so amazing to play a part in it.
Next month in February WIG is doing it all again with Interplast Australia & New Zealand. This is another medical team that also visits Laos annually for a free clinic. They specialise in burns and skin grafts.
I wrote about Interplast's visit to Mahosot last year.
We're looking forward to another fabulous free clinic helping many more deserving Lao people. Want to help? Check out the WIG Laos Facebook page for regular updates!
All photos in this post are the copyright of Sylvie Gerard and WIG Laos, 2018.