Canyon Ranch Medicine, Laos Style

by Mark Liponis, M.D., Canyon Ranch Corporate Medical Director

In October 2011, I made my first visit to Asia. I was tagging along with my wife, Dr. Siobhan McNally, on one of her regular medical relief missions, this time to Laos. Ever since we met and fell in love in medical school, Siobhan has been keen on medical outreach – bringing supplies and care to people in need around the world.

Sandwiched between Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam, landlocked Laos is one of the poorest countries in Asia. You might think that the practice of medicine in Laos and at Canyon Ranch couldn’t be more different, but in some ways there are many similarities. What we learned in Laos may also benefit some of our guests at Canyon Ranch.

We quickly learned that most of the health problems in Laos were nutritional and/or infectious. Of course here in the U.S., there are lots of nutritional disorders like diabetes and, in part, heart disease. But these result from overconsumption; in Laos, the nutritional disorders are from deficiencies. In fact, Siobhan and I repeatedly saw nutrient deficiencies we had only read about in medical school, never seen, like beri-beri (caused by deficiency of vitamin B2, thiamine).

Full-blown vitamin deficiencies like beri-beri aren’t subtle – B2 deficiency leads to heart failure or nerve damage that makes walking impossible. We were able to see first-hand how quickly and effectively vitamins can correct and reverse the signs and symptoms of beri-beri and other vitamin deficiencies.

After a few days learning more about health care in Laos, our makeshift clinics in remote villages soon began to take on a Canyon Ranch kind of atmosphere. We realized we didn’t bring enough vitamins and medicines to treat the whole village, so we dispensed what we could – lifestyle advice! We taught villagers about hygiene, diet, stretching, physical therapy and massage. We encouraged people to include more brown rice in their diet, which helps to provide the vitamin B2 missing in polished, white rice. Most of the people survived by doing hard labor in the rice fields every day. Sore backs, hips, shoulders, necks and legs were almost universal. We taught stretches to help loosen tight muscles and reduce pain. We showed family members how to massage sore muscles and to elevate swollen feet. We encouraged teachers to teach Lao children in their classes how to brush their teeth and to stay away from candy. We also encouraged children to pursue their studies in school and explained that education had helped us to become doctors so that we could come to Laos and help the Lao people.

We also found a significant language barrier. There are over 30 different ethnic groups in Laos, each speaking their own language. The groups have difficulty even communicating between themselves. We used alot of sign language to communicate. We did have some interpreters, and we also had some fairly advanced equipment, thanks to our group, the Lao Rehabilitation Foundation. They had brought ophthalmic and dental equipment, as well as obstetric equipment and portable ultrasound units. We found ultrasound to be invaluable, as it allowed us to look inside someone right at the bedside. It helped us to look at organs like the heart, liver, gallbladder, aorta, and kidneys. What we lacked in language we made up for with ultrasound imaging. It was amazing that in one of the poorest countries in the world, we were delivering some of the best state-of-the-art diagnostic exams and providing some of the best “lifestyle medicine” possible.

In fact, I found the use of bedside ultrasound so helpful and valuable that it’s something we are considering bringing to Canyon Ranch. If the poorest people of Laos can get a bedside ultrasound with their physical, why can’t our guests at the Ranch? More on that to come …

Both Siobhan and I found our experience in Laos to be very moving and satisfying. Of course we couldn’t help everyone, and there were many things we just couldn’t do. But there is a lot to do and we’re already making plans to go back soon.

I’m also happy to report that our relief work has rubbed off on our kids. All three are college students now, but they’ve accompanied us on other relief missions to places like Ecuador and Haiti. It’s important for us that our kids learn to give back, and that’s been a regular part of their education and time off. They’ve developed a keen sense of altruism and we’re proud of them!