At her Thai border clinic, Cynthia Maung treats victims of war from her native Burma
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One volunteer is Dr. Terrence Smith of Sacramento, Calif., who spends several months each year at the clinic's maternity unit, which helps up to a dozen poor women a day give birth safely. "Dr. Cynthia serves as an example for encouraging a spirit of self-reliance among the neediest," he says.Skip to next paragraph
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A Burmese villager has, in fact, just amputated a leg. "I can do all kinds of operations, no problem," stresses Eh Ta Mwee, a diminutive Karen medic, who has assisted in myriad operations performed by qualified surgeons. If need be, he now can perform surgeries on his own.
The leg that was amputated below the knee was that of another Burmese villager, Htay Gay, who contracted severe gangrene after being shot in the ankle by a Burmese government soldier in Burma's insurgency-troubled Karen State. He reached the clinic after 10 days hobbling through jungle and hills with a bamboo crutch.
"Without Dr. Cynthia, I'd be dead," he says laconically. In a few months, he'll be equipped with a prosthetic leg made in the clinic's workshop.
Like him, many patients come from inside Burma after grueling journeys on foot or borne by relatives on improvised stretchers. Suffering from malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, or from untreated injuries and wounds, many sick and destitute people slip across Burma's porous border with Thailand to seek treatment at the Mae Tao Clinic.
"We won't turn anyone away or leave them to suffer alone," Maung says.
Still, many people in rural hinterlands can't come to Mae Sot, so Dr. Maung's clinic goes to them.
In groups of three to five, some 300 ethnic Karen, Mon, and Shan medics trained by Maung's staff fan out across mountainous hill-tribe terrain to remote villages deep inside Burma. Dodging land mines and ambushes by government troops during these arduous hikes into the war zones of a fierce, decades-old separatist insurgency, members of the clinic's Backpack Health Worker Team lug bulky supplies of medicine in rucksacks and wicker baskets fastened with straps slung across their foreheads.
Several have died or been maimed en route. "We work in a conflict area with free-fire zones," says Mahn Mahn, a Karen who oversees the teams' work. "We're Dr. Cynthia's medical marines."
In bamboo-and-thatch hamlets lashed by torrential monsoon rains, the backpack medics treat diseases, attend to injuries, and teach villagers about hygiene and nutrition. They distribute birth delivery kits to expectant mothers and dietary supplements to children.
"Dr. Cynthia is a mother figure who gives," notes Tha Tha, a Karen man. "She's built everything from scratch. She has nothing herself, but gives to others who need it more."
Her compassion hasn't endeared the doctor to the Burmese junta, which has declared her a traitor. Maung receives anonymous death threats and is shadowed at crowded gatherings by unarmed volunteer bodyguards.
But Dr. Cynthia is carrying on, undaunted.
"Many sick people in Burma have nowhere to go," she says. "But we're here for them."