NORTH DURHAM: For Dr. Robert Clendenning of Sunderland, the month of August was spent not poolside combating the humidity of a southern Ontario summer, but 12,500 feet above sea level half a world away.
The local physician was part of a team of healthcare professionals which, earlier this summer, ventured to Tibet to provide basic medical care to residents living in the mountainous Yushu and Nangchen regions of the Asian country.
Joined by Yvette Dalrymple, a pediatric nurse practitioner and program coordinator for Port Perry’s North Durham Family Health Team, the local delegates teamed up with Dr. Raviv Globerson, a dentist from Israel; Deannie Janowitz, an acupuncturist from San Francisco; and Pema Drokar, a Tibet-born, Canadian trained RPN who lives in Toronto.
Dr. Clendenning, who moved to Sunderland from Sudbury in 2011, works full-time out of a smaller Brock-based branch of Medical Associates of Port Perry.
This fourth yearly mission was organized by the Raktrul Foundation, which was founded by Bardor Tulku Rinpoche, a Tibetan Lama who grew up in that area of Tibet. According to Dr. Clendenning, the team saw more than 1,000 residents during its two week stay in this eastern part of Tibet, most of whom had never received any care and would be hard-pressed to access a hospital or clinic. While basic medications taken for granted by Westerners, such as ASA and ibuprofen, were available in this part of Tibet, Dr. Clendenning noted that these products were prohibitively expensive and only available in small packaging.
The team brought around 400 pounds of donated and purchased medications, including contributions from pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer, Health Partners International and locally, from Port Perry pharmacist Doug Brown of Shoppers Drug Mart, who provided the team with several medications at cost or less.
"It was my first time in Tibet proper," said Dr. Clendenning, who had previously treated patients near the country’s border with China. "It’s quite amazing the amount of development money put into the country by the Chinese government, with an eye toward resource extraction."
That money, said the local doctor, has resulted in developments such as modern buildings and roads (along with the automobiles that travel along them) that only 25 years ago, were not present. Many Tibetans in the area now use motorcycles to get around instead of ponies, said Dr. Clendenning, with some wealthier residents upgrading to small SUVs. Much of that money, said the doctor, was injected into the region following a 2010 earthquake that devastated Yushu, leaving no buildings standing.
While many patients attended the clinic with "gastrointestinal issues and untreated chronic pain," Dr. Clendenning noted that dental care was in particular demand by the residents of the area.
"Dr. Globerson removed more aching, decayed teeth in the two weeks there than he had in his entire long career," recalled Dr. Clendenning. "None of his happy patients had seen a modern dentist who actually froze the tooth before removal.
Further up the foothills, the scenery changes to treeless slopes dotted with Buddhist rock carvings and the ever-present yaks that are kept as livestock in the country. Far in the distance, the white caps of the Himalayas mountain range beckon to the adventurous. The headwaters of the Mekong River rush past a Buddhist nunnery that provided food, shelter, and clinic working space to the team.
Dr. Clendenning noted that while the country is often associated with the political unrest between itself and China, the eastern region, occupied by the Chinese government, in which the team practiced is relatively free from such strife. While entering the country provided no challenges, it was the low levels of oxygen that provided the biggest hurdle to the medical team.
While this was his first mission since joining Medical Associates, Dr. Clendenning said that he looks forward to returning to the country again.
"The basic citizen there has no medical care," said the doctor. "I’d like to go back and help - it was very fulfilling experience."