Seoul Foreign School and the Eugene Bell Foundation have partnered for 15 years to help the people of North Korea in their fight against the preventable and treatable disease, tuberculosis. The contributions that our school has made over these years has transformed the speed by which TB patients can be diagnosed and treated by purchasing portable x-ray machines, Genx-X sputum culture analyzers, nutrition packs and of course, the 6 month to 3 year supply of life-saving medication needed for each patient. The Eugene Bell Foundation’s biannual trips to the South and North Pyongan provinces, Pyongyang and Nampo cities and surrounding regions of North Korea constitutes the care for approximately one-third of the TB patients in the entire country. Seoul Foreign students, staff and families have been integral, life-saving friends to our northern neighbours.
As chairperson of the 2013 Dongdaewon Fundraising Campaign, I was privileged enough to accompany the Eugene Bell delegation in April of 2013 as the SFS donor representative. It was a tense time politically during the preparation for our trip, with many of the visas for non-profit aid organizations being revoked and even some countries’ embassy personnel in North Korea, leaving the country over the threat of war. However, because of the excellent relationship that Eugene Bell, and more specifically Dr. Stephen Linton and his teams, have fostered over the past years, ours was the only humanitarian group allowed into the country.
During the 2-week trip, we often spent one day traveling to the TB clinic location, setting up the clinic stations, registering and collecting samples from patients and then waiting for diagnosis from the doctors so we could distribute the medicine. The following day we would rest. It was on those rest days that I would think about the people struggling with TB on a daily basis. It was cold outside, with frigid winds and although our team was housed in a luxurious guesthouse, I knew the patients struggling with this disease had a much harder fight against the elements and their condition. Some of the patients, already registered in the program, were housed at the clinic itself, and therefore, only needed to wake up and wait the long hours for information about their prognosis.
However, for possible new patients, men and women who had symptoms of TB and needed to be diagnosed, many of them would walk long distances in hopes of becoming a registered patient and getting the proper medication. After arriving early in the morning, they would wait all day, crouching in hopeful anticipation that someone might ease their fears of being sick, or begin treating the dreaded disease they were suspected to have.
But for a few, at each TB clinic, the long struggle was won; if patients had responded to the medicine and they had remained strong and consistent during their treatment, the good news that they had fought back TB and were now cured could be shared with them! I have never experienced a more sincere and relieved smile on the face of any person, as I have during these patients’ “graduation” ceremonies. For some, this battle lasted just a year, but for others it continues for many years, without the guarantee of winning the fight.
This is why it is so important that we remain in the battle alongside these brave men and women. We have the comforts of shelter, healthy food and water, warmth on cold nights and excellent medical care just down the street. But our neighbors to the north are fighting disease, political strife, and a lack of resources the South Korean side of the peninsula hasn’t seen in 50 years. Jesus said that all the Law and the Prophets’ instructions hung on two commands: To love God with all we have and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40). I can’t imagine a better way to teach this to our children, and ourselves, than partnering in the Dongdaewon Campaign each year. May you know of your blessings, be thankful for them, and anxious to share those with all who are in need. Thank-you for your generosity of spirit and resources.