“We’re trying our best to get in contact with our patients, but it’s tough. Almost all of them have cell phones. But there’s no reception in the mountains and the most rural parts of this area.”

I was surprised to hear Mr. Wang’s words as he explained the difficulties of providing medical care to his village. Mr. Wang was the village doctor, a short, dark local Chinese man. As he told my team and me about the medical situation of his village, his eyes twinkled, showing his love for his village community. With each word, he revealed his slightly yellowed and crooked teeth. We sat in his small office, which was the size of a typical hospital patient room in the US but had a concrete floor and contained only a small wooden table, two wooden benches, and a small wooden cabinet with some IV bottles and medication. The only other room in the clinic was the waiting room, a small dusty space with only three walls and an opening facing a dirt road where the fourth wall should have been. There was no air conditioning and there was an old TV playing a Chinese soap opera as a few old men sat on small wooden benches playing cards, smoking, and waiting for their IV to finish. Next to them were a few rusty fans, on and rotating to improve the room’s air circulation and keep flies away. That was the whole clinic.

As a part of my thesis research I was in China for the summer, working with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the Division of Infectious Diseases to investigate the transmission dynamics of hand-foot-and-mouth disease (HFMD). Using statistical models and talking with local epidemiologists and clinicians, I hoped to gain a better understanding about how HFMD is spreading among children in China. Mr. Wang was one of the many doctors I met in Hunan while talking to doctors working in different medical settings, ranging from large urban hospitals to small village clinics.

It was eye-opening to see the medical conditions of the village clinic. Mr. Wang explained that despite his best efforts, it was tough to keep up with the whole village’s medical care. Although he sees most of the village members regularly, he said there were also those members who lived on the outskirts of the village in the mountains where it was hard to get to and often difficult to get in contact with the residents. Mr. Wang added that it was often difficult to explain medical problems to patients because of their lack of basic medical knowledge. There was a lack of adequate medical equipment, necessary medications, and hygienic settings for certain treatment plans. Before my visit, I had been told about the expected condition of these types of clinics—so I was not completely shocked when I saw the clinic’s conditions. But I was definitely saddened by them.

Leaving the clinic that day, I didn’t really know what to make of my experience. I knew that the doctor was doing the best he could with what he had and that he was doing a great job. But like he said, there was much room for improvement. So what was I to do with this information? Even if I wanted to make a change, could I?

Reflecting on my visit to the clinic, I wanted to believe that my visit did make a small difference. Even though I could not change anything at that time, Mr. Wang smiled and thanked my team for visiting. I believe that Mr. Wang enjoyed our visit. We also, even if we could not change anything there and then, were willing to listen to how things were going at the clinic and encourage Mr. Wang in his efforts. During my visit I felt passions flare to life within me, passions that will help guide my future: a desire to help people gain access to resources to help them stay healthy, and a desire to further invest in Chinese-speaking communities, whether they be in Asia or in the United States. Maybe I’ll return to Hunan in the future, and get the chance to join Mr. Wang in his fight.
For those of you who will be traveling soon, I encourage you to immerse yourself fully wherever you go. Some of you may discover you really love your temporary home, the people there, and everything else about it. You may realize that you have found where you want to be in the future—whether that’s just for a summer, a semester, a year, or a lifetime. Safe travels!

~Victor Hsiao