„There’s a lot to learn about happiness from people living in slums” – Maria starts to share her experience about travelling with Austrian Doctors. “People there are really welcoming when you arrive. Even though they own almost nothing, they do everything in their power to offer as much as a cup of tea. I haven’t learned this hospitality in my home country. Having such joy with little things is really enviable – people are happy to spend the time with you, that’s all.”
Maria works with Austrian Doctors as their main administrative coordinator for a few years now. The association is an Austrian non-profit that helps the Earth’s least fortunate people. They offer free medical practice, or support schools and adult education in underdeveloped areas. For 30 years, doctors from Austria do voluntary work under the head of the partner organization German Doctors. Dr. Waldmann and Dr. Gruber founded the independent association Austrian Doctors in 2008. They focus on providing 6-weeks long voluntary medical help in slums and remote areas of the Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Kenia and Sierra Leone.
Yakuzuzu: How does a voluntary assignment look like?
Maria: There are around 100 doctors all over Austria who sign up for a 6-weeks long voluntary programmes in-between jobs, or as a holiday. Many of them are retired who still have the passion for medicine and want to spend their retirement years in a useful way. None of them get paid for their work abroad, which means they bring a lot of intrinsic motivation for their job. The big difference between us and “Doctors without Borders” is that we don’t work in war zones.
Yakuzuzu: Isn’t it risky for retirees to work in remote areas?
Maria: Yes, of course. We have an age limit of 74 years, and the doctors need to be physically fit as well.
Yakuzuzu: There must be local doctors and hospitals, aren’t there?
Maria: Yes there are, but most of the hospitals in those areas are in a bad condition. I have once been in a hospital in Daccar that you couldn’t believe have you seen it with your own eyes. You enter the hall and you want to turn right back. I’m sure you’d get only more sick after being treated there.
There is dirt everywhere, no space, and you find stains all over the walls – no one knows whether it’s blood or faeces.
The patients don’t get food, so they are always accompanied by their family that provides for them. If you can, definitely try to avoid being treated in those places. Our goal is to build a sustainable medical care in the slums and remote areas. We’ve established our own schools and educational projects, we can now educate local medical health workers. In the future the locals will be able to treat patients without our help.
Yakuzuzu: What are your biggest challenges?
Maria: For our doctors the most challenging part is to make the best treatment out of very limited resources. We try to avoid ruining the market in those countries, therefore we mostly source the medication locally. Fact is, in our ambulance we don’t have all necessary resources. A laboratory or all other modern medical technologies are simply missing. That’s difficult for our doctors, who’ve worked their whole life in a luxurious surgery or in a modern hospital in Austria. And another challenge is the communication: we always bring a translator with ourselves, but it’s still not easy.
People usually complain about all-body pain.
They do hard manual labour. Often all a rickshaw driver would need is some rest and healthy food. Another challenge is that illnesses are different than in well-developed countries. Improving their living standards would change this, but we can’t do that: people live in cottages, pretty close to each other, and a complete family normally has only one bed for all of them. They usually have a fireplace inside the cottage, therefore many children get tuberculosis or other chronic lung diseases.
They don’t have a pension: their pension is their family.
Yakuzuzu: Do locals have to pay for the treatments?
Maria: They have to pay a small amount, only so that they see the value of our work. If someone really needs our help and can’t pay the fee, they will surely get the treatment for free. Poor people are very thankful there, because normally no one even throws a look on them. Our doctors treat them with respect, at eye level.
You cannot imagine the look in their eyes, when you touch their shoulders and listen to them.
Yakuzuzu: travelling in such countries must be eye-opening. What do you think is the key to happiness?
Maria: Acquiring material goods is definitely not the key to find fulfillment and happiness in life. Thankfulness – that’s it. We believe that money and things can make us happy, but the reality is the more you have the more you get into the fear-of-missing-out spiral. That drives people unhappy and makes them sick.