Reaching Out to Rural Sarawak

21 December 2017

A group of medical experts are providing free healthcare to the rural communities that reside deep in the forests of Sarawak.

The healthcare system of urban Malaysia has undergone tremendous positive changes in the last decade. Yet, many rural communities still don’t get to enjoy the benefits of the country's medical progress. In Sarawak, a group of healthcare experts known as the Rural Expeditions Aiding Community Health (REACH) are trying to change that.

Established in 2003, the NGO consists of more than 40 volunteers from across Malaysia including doctors, dentists, pharmacists and nurses. Every year the volunteers take turns to visit 15 villages in rural Baram, Lawas and Bakelalan to provide free medical and dental services to the Penan, Saban, Kenyah, Kelabit and Lun Bawang communities that live there.

Dr. Teh Yeon Chiat

For volunteers like Dr. Teh Yeon Chiat, who is currently posted at Miri General Hospital, it's never easy to go on these trips. Although the Kedah native has been a volunteer for the past two years, she’s still getting used to the poverty-stricken surroundings in rural villages.

"During my first trip I was in complete shock. I couldn't get used to the environment because it was such a huge contrast from the city. Water and electricity are no longer basic amenities – it's a luxury," she explains.

"For me, the most challenging thing is having to accept that this is their living condition. You just have to go in with the intention of helping them and not complain."

Most of the settlements that are under the care of REACH are located deep in the forest. To get there, it’s at least a six-hour journey from Miri, by road and boat or plane. Before the volunteers even arrive at their destination, the villagers will eagerly line up to be examined. Some even walk for two hours from neighbouring villages.

According to Dr. Teh, rural folk don't have “urban” diseases like heart disease, diabetes or hypertension; they mostly suffer from lung infections, high fever and the flu, as well as wear and tear conditions like joint pains or skin conditions like scabies. Most of them are also malnourished from the lack of nutrients in the food that they hunt and eat. A majority of the villagers also have dental problems; most of them need to be taught basic dental care such as how to brush your teeth.

"We hope that we can detect [during our visit] what needs to be treated. If the condition is serious, we will send the patient to Miri General Hospital in our truck,” says Dr. Teh.

“Usually in every trip there will be at least one or two people who need further medical assistance."

Last October, the team had to send a few elderly villagers to Miri for cataract surgery. A one-month-old baby with a severe lung infection also had to be rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Depending on how many villagers visit REACH’s makeshift clinic, the volunteers usually stay in a village for a night or two. Sometimes they see over 100 patients a day. The medical team normally consists of two doctors, two dentists (or one dentist and dental assistant) and support staff like a pharmacist or nurse.

Mathan Subraniam is an assistant pharmacist and REACH volunteer.

Mathan Subramaniam, an assistant pharmacist from Johor Bahru who works at the Miri Divisional Pharmacy Office, is always happy to lend the specialists a helping hand. Although his workplace has been providing medical supplies to REACH for the past 13 years, he only found out about the volunteer programme in early 2017. His first trip to Ba' Abang last September was an eye-opening experience.

"I realised how much these orang kampung need medical attention. Some of them have serious conditions. If we don't come to their villages and treat them they will just ignore it and think that it's normal," Mathan says.

"To get to the nearest rural clinic, the villagers have to trek through the jungle for at least two to three hours,” he continues. “The clinics are generally ill-equipped and operated only by medical assistants and not doctors. The orang kampung prefer to wait for us [REACH]."

During their visit, Mathan's role is to hand out medicine to the villagers. Most of them only speak in their native language so he relies on a translator to communicate dosage instructions. According to Mathan, for some of the villagers it's their first time taking modern medicine.

"I need to make sure that the villagers know how to eat the medicine correctly – what are the doses and how many times a day," he explains. "It's very important that they follow my instructions so that they can improve and get well."

To Dr. Teh and Mathan, the rural communities of Sarawak will always remain close to their hearts. Although both of them are planning to transfer back to their hometown in 2018, they are certain that they will continue to volunteer in this outreach programme. For them, this experience is a reminder of why they decided to become healthcare professionals in the first place – to help people in need.

REACH is supported by the Rotary Club Kuching and the Miri Pharmacy Store. If you’re interested in volunteering or would like to make a donation, contact REACH Sarawak on Facebook or email Dr. Teh at tehyeonchiat@yahoo.com.

By Rozella Mahjrhin
Photos by Danielle Soong

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