UK, Israeli, USA and Slovenian Team, Mongolia

1-15 MAY 2010

Mongolia is a country situated on the central Asian plateau wedged between China and Russia. It is classified as a low-income country, providing a healthcare system with poor infrastructure, old equipment and little money for basic supplies.

The country has an average elevation of 1600 meters, a land mass the size of Western Europe and is situated at the headwaters of river systems that flow to Siberia, the Arctic, China and the Pacific. It has a dry climate yet affords 250 sunny days a year and is known as Land of the Blue Sky . Only 3 million people live in Mongolia and half of these reside in the capital Ulaanbaatar. Travel is best undertaken in a four wheel drive or by horse since there are only 1500 kilometres of paved road and most travel is via an improved earth surface or earth tracks. This gives wonderful opportunities to meet the hospitable herdsmen who tend the 40 million horses, goats, sheep and cattle that roam over the fenceless and treeless steppes. It is an exotic experience to visit a ger (a traditional round felt tent) and enjoy the hospitality of a nomadic family, which may include mutton stew, horse meat, goat s milk tea and khoomis (fermented mare s milk).

Our two week mission from 30th April to 15th May 2010, was undertaken with the very able assistance of the Swanson Family Foundation (SFF) represented in Ulaanbaatar (UB) by Mrs M Enkhtuvshin (Enkhee). Planning had begun more than six months earlier. Surgery and teaching took place during the first week in the central Teaching Hospital #2 in UB (under the leadership of the Chief of Surgery, professor Tsagaan Narmandakh) and during the second week at the central hospital in Moron, a distance of 800km to the north in Khuvsgol province. Surgeons from district hospitals attended for teaching and lectures in Lichtenstein inguinal hernia repair, incisional hernia repair with mesh and components separation, and some paediatric surgery. To reach Moron involved an unforgettable drive across the steppes and taiga to the still-frozen Khuvsgol lake adjacent to Siberia.

Our team consisted of myself, Professor Motti Gutman from Israel, Dr Todd Heniford and Dr David Earle from the USA (the first representatives of the American Hernia Society) and Dr Juriy Gorjanc from Slovenia. We arrived at the Chinggis Khan airport early on the morning of Saturday 1st May and were met by Enkhee, the Chief of Surgery and the Director, of Hospital #2. The remainder of the day was spent orientating in the city of UB and adjusting to the cheerful faces of Mongolians dressed in their exotic and colourful deels (three-quarter length gown that buttons at the right shoulder to a high round-necked collar), hats, scarves and sashes. Our clinical work began the following evening (Sunday) with pre-assessment of 20 or so patients who had a variety of hernias. On the Monday morning we attended a dignified official opening ceremony with appropriate speeches and then set to work. In 2 operating theatres we completed 10 cases, surrounded by up to 20 curious surgeons seeing modern techniques of hernia surgery for the first time. During the following week we were able to take several of these surgeons through hernia operations and then proceed to teach them under direct supervision. In the meantime we had a guided tour of the hospital, made occasional visits to the emergency room and on one occasion witnessed the expert treatment of a bleeding liver tumour. In the evenings Mongolian entertainment was laid on, including a visit to the Naran Tuul black market and a glimpse of ancient Mongolian culture at a presentation of the National song and dance Ensemble. We gave TV interviews to the national network which were broadcast during the evening and vastly increased the recruitment of patients. By the end of the first week over 50 patients had been treated and we celebrated with a farewell well dinner in a restaurant that had a copy of the famous painting of One Mongolia by Sharav, as a backdrop.

In Moron each morning began with an 800 meter walk to the hospital from our small hotel, rubbing shoulders with colourfully-dressed school children on their way to lessons and ordinary citizens going about their business. During four working days we completed another 50 cases and taught the surgical staff techniques of mesh repair. We operated on fifteen children, some as young as 4 months. By doing this, we would have saved each family two days travel each way to UB, plus a 2 or 3 day stay in the capital during the hospital admission. The cost of a journey such as this would often be beyond the means of a herdsman living a hand-to-mouth existence. Finally, the hospital staff entertained us to an evening meal in a ger camp when the whole delicious carcass of a goat cooked by traditional methods was consumed with vast quantities of Chinggis Khan vodka, which greatly assisted the content of subsequent spontaneous speeches.

On return to UB and prior to our departure we visited the Zanabazar fine art museum to view the long history of Mongolian art outlining the history of this interesting and fast-developing country. The hospitality had been enormous, and the surgeon s thirst for surgical knowledge enviable. An invitation to return has been accepted. We departed with a rudimentary knowledge of the Mongolian language, including the phrase of greeting when approaching a nomadic ger - nokhoi khor (hold off the dogs!)

The Operation Hernia team members wish to express their deep admiration of the Mongolian doctors with their high level of professionalism, their committment to the traditional values of the art of surgery, their recognition that medicine in low-income countries is still a vocation,.and their appreciation that the craft of surgery is a continuous learning process. We also wish to thank them for: preparing the mission with Enkhee, recruiting the patients, being attentive and willing learners, looking after our patients postoperatively and providing a sustained and entertaining social and culinary programme. The Mongolian doctors who were involved in the success of the mission were: (i) At Hospital #2: G. Bayasgalan (Director), Ts. Narmandakh (Head of Surgical Department); the following surgeons B. Onon, U Sanchin, Ya. Altanchineg, S. Ulambayar, G. Bilguun, P. Tseden-Ish, Ya. Batsumber; A. Khandaa (OR nurse); and the following anaesthesiologists: Z. Tumenjargal, A. Saranbaatar, J. Munkhzul. (ii) At Khuvsgol Central Hospital: D. Erdenebaatar (surgeon), D. Chuluunbaatar (Head of Surgical Department); D. Chuluunbat (surgeon) and Tumenjargal (anesthesiologist). We salute them all!

Andrew Kingsnorth