Doctors on the frontline

Doctors on the frontline

Medical students witness what life's like for less fortunate patients

Philip Kam Ming-ho ("Big Kam") and Aziz Kam Ka-wai ("Small Kam") are two remarkable medical students at the University of Hong Kong who want to make the world a better place. Earlier this summer, the two travelled overseas to experience how medicine is practised in other countries.

Big Kam, 27, went to Thailand to work in a shanty town hospital to get a feel for what is it is like to be a doctor in developing countries. He also witnessed first-hand the political terror that is often forced on people.

Meanwhile, Small Kam, 22, travelled to New York in the hope of seeing the most advanced medical facilities, but was stunned by the conflicts he encountered between people of different races.

Big Kam made his trip to Mae Tao Clinic at Mae Sot, a small town on Thailand's border with Myanmar.

Far from the sparkling modern wards of the city, he found himself in an iron shed with no air-conditioning and lacking most medicines and modern medical equipment. But it is still a paradise for its patients, who come for free treatment and food because it is safe. "All the patients are from the Karen ethnic minority in Myanmar," Big Kam says. "The Myanmese government is trying to wipe out the Karen people because of their different religion. The army has killed many Karen. It destroyed their villages and drove them into the jungles where few can survive. The Karen people are helpless and they come to the clinic for help when they are ill."

Life in the jungle is unbearable. Many patients are suffering infectious diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, and malnutrition is also very common. "These people live desperate lives," Big Kam says. "Families may have to travel hundreds of kilometres to the clinic and many don't make the journey until the patient is in critical condition. In one case, a woman had a huge tumour on her arm. She did not come until it was too late and the arm had to be amputated without proper anaesthetic.

"It was a horrible experience even for a doctor. I felt so helpless. All I could do was treat their illnesses, but the terrible political situation facing the Karen people can never be resolved."

In New York, Small Kam was deeply impressed by the finest medical equipment and medicine available but he thinks there is a serious problem with the people using these facilities.

The hospital in New York has two sections: a slum-like ward in the basement for Hispanic and black patients, and luxurious wards for white patients.

"The United States is not united at all," Little Kam says. "People of different skin colour live in their own districts in the city with minimum interaction. One day after work, my roommate and I wandered over to a Hispanic district next to the hospital and the children there were screaming, 'Hey look! There are Chinese people!' It was really sad to see people are so divided by skin colour. There is not much I could do about it as a doctor. Physical illness can be cured with medicine and advanced equipment, but conflicts between races are never going to end."

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