|May 23, 2008||Media contact: Shantell Kirkendoll
U-M physician assistant devoted to Burmese relief prepares for next aid mission
Recent cyclone intensifies need for food and medical supplies
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – International aid for cyclone victims is trickling into Myanmar, but University of Michigan Health System physician assistant Susan Klimist already knows the challenge of providing medical supplies and treatment for people in the region.
Klimist, a member of the U-M emergency department staff, has made at least five previous trips to nations bordering Myanmar, also known as Burma, to assist refugees fleeing military rulers.
“I could feel my heart break when I heard the news,” Klimist said of the cyclone that hit Myanmar May 3. “People are so oppressed by the military that to add this kind of suffering to their lives is unfathomable. My next trip is planned for November but because of this I feel like it should be sooner.”
Her visits to Thailand and India have been as a member and organizer of Burmese Relief Center-USA, a non-profit humanitarian aid group founded in Burma in the 1990s by a Flint, Mich. couple.
As the military gained power and pro-democracy activism met with brutal violence, the BRC’s work shifted from Burma to the Thai/Burma border. The BRC moved to the United States in 1997, but continues to steer relief to refugees.
Klimist, of Ann Arbor, has worked in clinics set up to assist those who flee Burma for the surrounding mountainous enclaves. She’s spent as much as three weeks in Thailand’s Mae Tao where Burmese physician Dr. Cynthia Maung runs a hospital.
“It started as a clinic but 20 years later it’s become a small hospital,” Klimist said. “It’s a beautiful facility where about 30 babies are born each month and a small operating room is available to do some procedures like hernia repair.
“They’ve developed a great pediatrics ward and feeding station to help children who come there malnourished,” she said. “She sees a need and tries to fill it. It’s that kind of place.”
Before each of her trips, Klimist collects a cache of supplies to help with the day-to-day effort of caring for the sick and wounded: gloves, antibiotics, vitamins, eye drops, orthopedic slings, Ace bandages and toothbrushes. On one trip, she took a microscope.
Such items are taken for granted in American health facilities. But in Southeast Asia they can be scarce – and life-saving.
Klimist has been a physician assistant for 23 years, and provided both treatment for patients and education for medical workers on her Southeast Asia aid missions.
PA’s are licensed health professionals who complete physical examinations, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and read test results, assist with surgeries and write prescriptions.
Over the years, she’s seen her humanitarian work make a difference.
“A library in Fang is stocked almost entirely with U-M texts. Most are on primary care, but there are some surgery and pediatrics and obstetrics-gynecology (textbooks),” she said.
Through fund-raising, BRC-USA has trained women to weave, paid medical expenses for a land mine victim, provided orphans with food, built a nursery school, provided warm clothing and carried out other humanitarian projects.
“All that we do is tremendously appreciated,” she said of the relief missions. She pays for the travel herself so all the BRC-USA’s resources go to those in need.
She has not been able to reach her colleagues and friends in the region. Klimist has relied on news reports and information from relief organizations such as the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross which estimate the death toll is 100,000, and perhaps as much as 138,000.
Klimist worries about those who survive in the nation that once was the greatest rice producer in Asia and still relies on rice crops – now destroyed by natural disaster – for income.
The Myanmar government estimates losses of $10 billion from the cyclone that swept through Irrawaddy Delta and Yangon, the largest city and former capital of Burma.
The New York Times reports that this week, Myanmar agreed to let its Southeast Asian neighbors help coordinate foreign relief including from the United States. International relief agencies say food aid has been delivered to just 212,000 of the 750,000 people it thinks are most in need.
“Survivors risk starvation and unclean standing water raises the risk of diseases such as Dengue fever and malaria,” Klimist said. “Before the cyclone, because of government obstruction, food was limited and expensive and the price would go up without notice. Now there’s even less of everything.”
How to help: Visit Burmese Relief Center–USA, based in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Written by: Shantell M. Kirkendoll