|Da Tsen, age 82, received a wheelchair from Kham Aid Foundation when Eunice Shen and her team in November, 2003. She is afflicted with severe osteoarthritis and is unable to walk. The team came to her home to deliver the chair.||Our program was reported in the local paper Ganzi News.|
This year, the fourth year of this program, we did something different: we purchased our wheelchairs from a factory in Chengdu. This is because, in previous years, we found that importing the chairs from NGOs overseas meant that we had to give a share of them to the Sichuan Disabled Persons Federation for distribution in other parts of Sichuan. (Also, we've had some horrendous headaches getting the wheelchairs through Customs). Lately, we are getting so good at finding disabled people in Kham, that we don't want to send chairs anywhere else. So we didn't import them, we bought them, each chair having its own sponsor. We ordered 100 chairs, sized 14 inches (width of seat) to 20 inches. They were good strong folding wheelchairs with adjustable leg rests and calf straps. Some had removable arms, too.
Wheels for Humanity gave us one pediatric tilt-in-space wheelchair, which Pam Logan hand-carried to China as checked baggage. This chair was given to the Holy Love School in Chengdu for one of their children who has cerebral palsy. The Holy Love School has been our long-time partner in this program, and has supported Kham Aid Foundation in many ways, so we were very glad to help them out.
Some 2003 wheelchair recipients (left to right): Pema Lhamo, age 78, who has osteoarthritis and dislocation of the left hip. She Quxian, age 64, who suffered from a stroke that paralyzed her right side. Da Tsen, age 38, lives in Maniganggo, is a paraplegic due to severing of the spinal cord when he was stabbed by robbers.
There was one leftover wheelchair saved from last year, so the total number of chairs we had to distribute was 101. They were slated for Baiyu (Pelyul) County, and Dege (Derge) County. We gave 50 wheelchairs to Baiyu and 51 to Derge.
The five team members arrived in Chengdu on Sat, Oct 18, 2003. We spent one day inspecting the chairs and buying supplies, then we set out for Baiyu. The trip was very strenuous! I was glad that Pam Logan, Dana Isherwood, and Wu Bangfu had warned me how LONG the drive was! There were three days of travel to our first destination. The road to Kangding is still under repair and it took us twelve hours to get there from Chengdu. Kangding is the gateway to the Tibetan plateau, so after Kangding we had to deal with high elevation. The annual monsoon should have been over, but we had snow and blizzard-like weather on the way to Luhuo (Trango), our second night's stop.
That was the coldest day for me, for I rode in one of the two trucks that were carrying the chairs. Mr. Wu and Mr. Chang, an official from the Ganzi Prefecture Disabled Persons Federation, rode in the other truck. We also had a 4-wheel drive vehicle that carried our luggages and other supplies, as well as the other foreign members of the team.
The following summarizes what took place at each region.
The road to Baiyu passes through some really remote terrain, and bandits are rumored to ply this route. The officials felt it was better for us to travel as a caravan - safety in numbers! - rather than send the truck carrying Derge's wheelchairs directly to Derge alone. There was also some concern that Tro La, the mountain pass to Derge, would have been too strenuous with the heavy cargo. Each wheelchair weighed about 50 lbs heavier than the chairs we have previously distributed. This made them solid and durable but more difficult to carry.
On the way to Baiyu, we had to drive for an hour or two at high elevation. Both of the two trucks had blow-outs at 5,000 meters above sea level. It was very difficult to change tires at that altitude! Our strength was sapped by the lack of oxygen. It took some time, and both drivers had to work together to get each tire changed.
Then, after we had descended a bit, one truck's fuel line broke. That was another challenge. We were several hours from our destination. It was autumn and very cold. Luckily, we had with us a lot of duct tape for fabricating cushions and wedges for our wheelchairs. We used our tape to seal the whole fuel line, and used metal clamps and wires to secure the tape. This was a temporary measure until we could get to Baiyu and to have the truck fixed.
When we arrived in Baiyu, we found that, of our fifty expected patients, only six were present. The officials there stated that many of the people lived in remote rural areas and could not travel to town due to the heavy rain that had fallen in the past few days before our arrival. It had rained heavily the night before, and there were mudslides that had to be cleared even so that we could even get to Baiyu.
We decided to reduce our scheduled stay from two days to one. In that one day, we fitted the six patients to wheelchairs (see previous reports on www.khamaid.org that explain in more detail about the process). Our team doctor, Jerry Wada, saw half a dozen other sick people, whom he treated as he could with medicines we had brought with us. (The arrival of a foreign medical team invariably attracts ill Tibetans who have not had success with local doctors, or who can't afford them. Knowing this, we were prepared).
Because so many of the wheelchairs would be given to patients later, after the team had gone, I decided to train the two local Baiyu officials in how to do the job. We left information forms for them to complete about their patients (they were translated into Chinese). The remaining chairs were consigned to the county government to distribute.
This seems risky, but in the past we've had pretty good luck with chairs being distributed in absentia. It helps that wheelchairs, unlike drugs, are not exactly a hot black-market item! After a few months, the information forms come back to us, usually with photos attached showing the people who got the chairs. It certainly helps that our field director, Wu Bangfu, is in Kangding to make phone calls to the officials responsible. Also, the local governments usually are eager that we come back, so they cooperate as well as they can. Anyway, I left the chairs in Baiyu in good faith that they would find proper homes.
We visited six patients in their villages in rural Derge County. This was a very positive experience for all of the team because we got to do home visits, patient assessments, and the wheelchair assessments and fittings in the patient's natural environment. We learned a lot from this. We even visited a very poor nomad family and treated the key family member who was very ill. I was able to do proper wound care management, which is invariably lacking in rural areas. We gave them clothing and socks, as all of them were in clothes that were torn, and all the three children had no socks or shoes. We also left medicines to care for the woman's illness.The government arranged for us to see patients at the newly built County Hospital. It is a three-story building with no elevators. The hospital was not officially open, so there was no equipment or furniture in most of the rooms. Construction materials were still all over the place. We were given some rooms to use on the second and third floors. The patients, most of whom could not walk, were carried by family members and friends up the stairs to us.
Before we arrived, the county government had broadcast announcements on television saying that we were coming. The officials were astonished by how many people showed up to the hospital. We did not have enough wheelchairs to give to all the disabled. I was told that 116 people came forward asking for chairs. The officials had failed to register the disabled people ahead of time, and create a patient list for us, which is the way we usually operate. Moreover, they had already promised chairs to a lot of folks living in rural areas far away, places from which patients could not easily be brought out. So these people had to be considered, too.
To add more fuel to the fire, leaders from the different townships were competing for chairs to give their own people. There was a good deal of confusion, anxiety, and hard feelings generated by all this. It was very uncomfortable because of the crowds that surrounded the team, and also heart-breaking to see so many folks who obviously were not going to get chairs that day.
We had arrived in Derge from Baiyu in the morning. After a quick lunch we worked for more than 6 hours nonstop without a bathroom or water break. Still, we could not see all the patients that were standing for hours waiting to be seen. We had people pushing and as many as ten squeezing in to the tiny room where I was working with volunteer Karen Malone.
In the end, we distributed 32 wheelchairs in the town. Nineteen wheelchairs were held back by the officials to distribute in the more remote areas. As I have already described, some of these were delivered by my team on our way out. We stopped at 8 PM and had a late farewell dinner given by the officials.
After dinner, I and some other team members met with the local officials until almost midnight. We explained how the work should be organized, how to create patient lists, and how we do our part by diagnosing disabilities and evaluating patients' needs. We recommended that they have some sort of registry so that there is a better count of how many people need wheelchairs, and how many have other needs.
Like any project on the Tibetan plateau, this one had some bumps on the road. Still, we were able to do an enormous amount of good. I'm already planning how we can bring more wheelchairs to Derge and other parts of Kham next year.
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