In December 09, I returned from a two week trip to North Korea with Eugene Bell. The most common question I heard on my return was, "what was it like"? It's so hard to answer that question. In a sentence I would say, fascinating, beautiful, heartbreaking and amazing, all rolled up in one big messy ball. I thought I would put pen to paper and try and describe some of it ... using pics to help.
First of all, if you are wondering what this is all about, our school works in partnership with the Eugene Bell Foundation to support a TB care centre at Dongdaewon, in North Korea. I went to North Korea as our school representative and also as the official photographer for Eugene Bell. The picture above is our team that travelled for two weeks. 6 of us went in and we had North Koreans travelling with us the entire time as well.
Okay, this might be a few minutes of reading, so why don't you grab a cuppa, pull up a chair and sit with me a while ... here we go!
Miss Carpenter's Trip to NK - Nov/Dec 2009
Welcome to NK. In this post I will discuss several aspects of my impressions - the land, transportation, housing, the people and the work of the Eugene Bell Foundation. In my next post, I will talk specifically about the care centre our school supports at Dongdaewon.
Going to NK was like stepping back in time 50 years. It is by and large an agrarian society. The first thing that hit me about the landscape was that it was beautiful and unpolluted. I was not expecting it to be beautiful. It was the beginning of winter when everything is barren and brown and bare, and I just didn't think it would be. North Korea has great mountains, rolling hills and valleys. Much of the countryside is terraced for rice and I imagine in the spring, when the rice paddies are green, it must be a beautiful sight. There are not too many trees in the countryside, as most have been taken for firewood but I did see evidence of some replanting, along with many trees along the sides of the roads. There were more trees than I thought there would be. Outside of the major cities and towns, many of the roads are unsealed ... and the ones that are sealed do not guarantee a smooth ride :)
We primarily travelled around in a convoy of two vans, and a Eugene Bell truck for the medical supplies. The truck you see in the picture above is typical of the trucks that Eugene Bell provide care centres with. They are often used to transport patients.
This picture is one of my favorite from the trip. I think our minders thought I was a little loopy as I went into raptures about bullocks (mainly because I wanted a pic and I was trying to win them over and let me take a picture which took some persuading!) There are very few cars on the roads. Most vehicles we saw were military vehicles. The most common form of transport was bullock cart. Most people people were walking and some have bikes. Very rarely did I see one person on a bike. It was common to see a mother with two children - one on the back and one in the basket on the front, or, someone pushing the bike and using it to move heavy loads.
The capital city has many apartment houses for people to live in, but people are not free to just move around the countryside and live where they want. To live in the capital, you would probably have to have "connections". The house above is very typical of houses in the countryside ... no electricity and if any heating, it will be ondol heating (under the floor) using coal. The care centres we visited heated with coal, but had to use it selectively to heat specific areas.
In a word, the people are beautiful. They have such an amazing spirit. Life is full of hardship for them, and they endure. They work. They love. They laugh. They smile. They weep. They mourn. They even dare to hope. In many ways, I think that it is good they do not really know what life is like outside of the country, because I don't know how you could endure the hardships they do if you knew that it didn't have to be that way.
Children are children where ever you go in the world. Children in NK work very hard. They have two sessions of school and go to either the morning session or the afternoon one. I saw them working the fields in working parties on various days. From a young age, they are trained to work. We visited a school one day which was really interesting for me. The picture above is part of our welcoming committee - the wee one in the background looked absolutely thrilled to see us. We could not get her to make eye contact or crack a smile. Think our western faces were a little scary! :)
Eugene Bell do not get to do many programs with the children. They would really like to and are constantly asking officials to allow them to help. The school we visited is part of a wellness check they are able to do through a hospital they work with. This hospital has about 20 schools in its care and visits each one for a week every year. They take in a mobile xray truck, doctors, nurses, a dentist and an optometrist. If children need glasses, they are made then and there.
Often, while fundraising, people say that they would be happy to support programs if they were for the children. I met a mother who said she was not afraid to die of her TB as she knew the party would care for her child. Think about that for a minute. Will the party soothe her child at night when she is sad? Will the party love the child the way a mother can? If you want to help children, help their parents so that their children do not catch TB from them, or even worse, become orphans.
This beautiful wee one (Soo-jeong) is 10 years old. She turned up with her father one day when we were taking sputum samples to send off for MDR testing (Multiple Drug resistant TB). She was a splash of color in the midst of beige, brown and black. She had on her best pants, high heeled sneakers and her warm coat (it was about -10C that day). As we weren't working with children, I noticed her immediately and was curious. I smiled at her and said hi in Korean. Her face lit up and she gave me a beautiful smile back and bowed to me. I kept an eye on her throughout the morning. She waited patiently with her father and I continued to stew in my curiousity. Why was she here? Why was she not in school? Was she caring for her father? Over several hours, she watched and waited as patients lined up to take height, weights and sputum samples. Her eyes were bright and curious and not once did I see her complain of the cold or the time spent waiting. I think I fell in love with her - a beautiful beautiful wee girl. My heart broke when I saw her step onto the scales to be weighed for her medical records. A child that age should have a life full of promise ahead, not a fight for her life with such a horrible illness as TB. Pray for her.
One other child I want to introduce you to is Winiju. She also came with her father, wrapped up warm and waiting patiently. Her parents are both medical doctors. When she was three years old, she contracted TB in her larynx. To save her life they had to operate and she has had a trach tube in ever since. She breathes unfiltered air through that tube and is unable to talk. She came because they think she has TB again. Pray for this little one.
Eugene Bell Foundation
Eugene Bell was founded by Dr Stephen Linton (seen here with a patient receiving her MDR meds). Dr Linton grew up in South Korea as the son of missionaries. For more information on the work of Eugene Bell, click here. I am really impressed with what they do. Most of the funds they use are raised through grass roots fundraising and donors through church. Stephen runs a very transparent ministry and this extends to finances. They are responsible with what they are given and are working hard to make a difference in the lives of the people in NK.
The primary focus of Eugene Bell is on treating TB. There is a very serious problem with TB in North Korea and there are three types of TB they are dealing with. The first type is standard TB. They use DOTs meds for this and it is quite cheap to treat patients. If they do not respond to DOTs, they could have MDR (Multiple Drug Resistant) TB. This is much harder to treat. Patients donate sputum samples, these are taken back to South Korea and cultivated for 5 months. They then work out an individualised drug treatment program for each patient. This is about 50 times more expensive than DOTs treatment. It is also much harder to treat. If patients do not respond to that, they may have XDR TB. Without medicine, the patients will die. As TB is airborne, it is easily passed on, so patients under treatment need to go to care centres and stay there for treatment. Often this can take a couple of years.
TB is a horrible disease and both the disease and the drugs are harsh on the patients. There is not a lot of money spent on research for this, so treatments are old and a little brutal. It tends to crop up in poorer countries with poor nutrition. Some people have asked why Eugene Bell focus on treatments instead of immunizing. The immunizations for TB are not very effective. You can be immunized and still catch it. Myung-Ri (in the above picture) is 42. She is being supported by her mother and is a doctor who caught TB (probably MDR). She came a long way because she heard they might be xraying and knew she needed to get one. When she found out that we were delivering a new xray truck to the centre and not xraying, she broke down and could not stop crying for several hours. Her tears were the tears of someone who was at her end ... and the last straw was that she had come all that way feeling so horrible, to no avail. We did xray her ... and still she cried. I just can not imagine her suffering and that of many of the patients. Her face to me is the face of despair. The saddest part of the trip for me, was the boxes left at the end of patient presentations. The patients they were for had died before they could receive their meds. I stood one day looking at the patient pictures and stats on each box. Very few of the patients were over 40 ... ages 28, 32, 29, 44. Who were these people? Mothers, sons, daughters, fathers. Each one a life cut off early due to lack of drugs and treatment. TB is treatable and we can help.
In contrast, the best part of the trip for me was delivering meds to patients (especially ours at our care centre). The joy on their faces when they received their meds was a humbling thing. I love the look on this lady's face as she receives her MDR drugs. To me, her face is the face of hope. I am going to finish this post here. In my next post I will take you on a guided tour of our care centre and walk you through the very practical differences that are made due to the fundraising from our students and faculty.