Kian Caplan - Medicine in Mongolia
As a young aspiring physician in the US, finding opportunities to gain actual clinical experience is difficult. While researching programs online, I eventually came across Projects Abroad. After learning more about their projects in Mongolia, I was immediately dead-set on going.
I got a job at a local restaurant, worked every weekend and saved every penny until I had enough for the trip a year later. Traveling to Mongolia not knowing anyone there or even speaking the language was exceptionally intimidating; particularly because it was my first time leaving the US and my first time travelling alone. Upon arrival, however, the friendly Projects Abroad staff made me feel welcomed and at ease.
Arriving in Mongolia
The harmoniously contrasting scenery of Ulaanbaatar’s city center and the untouched green landscape surrounding it is magnificent. Within the bustling city are tremendous buildings, statues, shops, markets, restaurants, cafes, movie theatres, books stores, museums and more.
I found Mongolians to be friendly yet shy until they can warm up to you. In my free time I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the city with the other volunteers and discovering the plethora of things Ulaanbaatar has to offer.
On our first day out in the town the entire city flooded while we were quite far away from the hostel. All of us ran from building to building for shelter and hopped from high-rise to high-rise as we made our way back. Every time we went grocery shopping and split up into groups, it was like playing charades with the employees as we would have to act out the item we were looking for.
The vast amount of physician shadowing, hands-on work and learning opportunities pertaining to medicine, as well as the fun weekend activities were magnificent. From learning how to take blood pressure, to medical outreach in the slums, to entertaining orphans, to going to fantastic museums, to observing surgeries up-close, to riding in ambulances, to hiking up mountains, to measuring cubic centimeters of urine in out-patient surgery, to riding camels & horses, to attempting to auscultate the apex of the heart - we did it.
We went to multiple hospitals - touring the departments, meeting the staff and medical students, learning hospital procedure, shadowing doctors, helping the nurses, seeing autopsies, and even observing a multitude of surgeries just feet away from the table.
Of these many surgeries, my favorites were definitely an oligodendroglioma excision from the temporal lobe, an arterial bypass of the femoral artery, the clipping of a massive aneurysm in the circle of willis, a laparoscopic cholecystectomy, and the creation of a fistula off of the radial vein. Watching these surgeries online doesn’t compare to seeing them in real life. Experiencing the sounds of distant, coordinated heartbeats from the monitor, clinking of tools, smooth wisps of the ventilation system, the smell of pungent iodine and antimicrobial cleaners, and the sight of vibrant human anatomy contrasting with the pale operating room consume you into an utterly different and serene world.
The medical outreach work we did in the slums was extremely hands-on; we got to take blood pressures, listen to breathing sounds, clean & bandage open wounds, and even serve soup to those who came to the community center. Going to the orphanage was also extremely rewarding.
The kids were extremely sweet, and it was hilarious watching them take their first “selfies” on our smartphones. My favorite experience by far, however, was getting to work at an ambulance call center. We rode in the ambulances to pick up individuals in sometimes critical condition and help transport them to the hospital. My most memorable moment was picking up a girl on a movie theatre rooftop with a head contusion and chest pain.
However, the theatre was (I believe) four stories and didn’t have an elevator, so we had to carry her down an umpteen amount stairs on the stretcher. She held my hand the entire time in the ambulance as we drove her to a hospital. On the weekends, we were immersed in exhibitions of Mongolian culture, history, and landscape. We went to augmenting museums of history, an entertaining Mongolian throat singing and contortionist performance, a fantastic amusement park, lively karaoke lounges, excellent book stores, brilliant art and puzzle galleries, great movies at theatres, delicious cafes & restaurants, Terelj National Park, and outstanding shops & markets..
We also hiked a mountain, rode camels & horses, visited Buddhist temples, took a group photo in traditional Mongolian outfits, helped clean a Buddhist sanctuary, and so many other marvelous activities.
Living in Mongolia
Our accommodation - Zaya’s Hostel - was wonderful. It had a very homey feel, with extremely kind staff that prepared a delicious breakfast for us every morning. The hostel also had wifi, so it was easy to keep in touch with family and friends back home throughout my stay - excluding the colossal time difference.
Walking through the hallways of the hostel at night was always amusing, as you would hear everyone calling and skyping home in different accents, Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese, Turkish, and French. When we weren’t out and about, Zaya’s truly did feel like home for all of us; the volunteers and I grew very close, in a way forming our own support system and family. From playing card games, to putting on store-bought spa masks, to studying anatomy and physiology together, bonding with such a fantastic group of people was inevitable. Together, we made Mongolia our blissful, comforting, amusing, cultivating, unforgettable home.
When reminiscing of my time in Mongolia, Charles Dickens’ fine words, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”, continually comes to mind. My experience was incredibly enriching, eminently challenging, extraordinarily stimulating, and above all, unforgettably joyful.