Not so much with a place called Tosontsengel, a sum in western Mongolia. A sum is a district, and Tosontsengel is the largest and the central one in the Zavkhan aimag (province), second only to the capital. What it is second to none is the cold is tackles every year. A yearly phenomenon called the Siberian Anticyclone drags freezing hell from Russia down to Mongolia via air mail late winter, making Tosontsengel subarctic climate. It is said one can lose ears and nose and fingers to the Goddess of Ice should she take a liking to what you didn’t hide from her. And that’s if you’re lucky. Veterans of the area, even native Mongolian, can be caught dead in a cold fusion of hypothermia and straight up freezing. You’d be encased in ice, but not before the cold shocks all of your organs down first. Never a good way to go.
But tales are just tales, and one would not truly understand a plight unless one is subjected to it. An Honours College graduate like the young trainee here understands that perfectly. He could have been doing EMT rides like his fellow friends back in Long Island, but the ad from the Red Cross cropped up and he just couldn’t give up a shot at it.
“3 months of practical training in Mongolia”, they said. “All expense included and paid for”. Can’t say no to that. A quarter year doing work in the Far East as a Red Cross trainee sounds too good a resume filler to throw away. What he didn’t think he said yes to is this weather. With the average temperature of this month in this area at – 37.0 °F and the record low at – 63.2 °F, this is definitely not what he signed up for.
Damn blizzard. The harshest of winds and the coldest of ice would probably not be this bad. Hell must have frozen over and gave him a red carpet treatment. Yes, there is a Land Rover, and yes, it comes with a heater. That sweet, sweet heater. What he wouldn’t give to be snuggling in the shotgun seat right now, blasting the warm air at his face and feeling his extremities coming alive. But a car, no matter how good, can only go so far. A lot of Mongolia’s terrain is flat grassland, but here in the Zavkhan aimag, the Goddess of Ice only leave permafrost ground. Not a problem and even the bumpier areas can easily be conquered by a Land Rover.
Until the Mountain God decides that he too want to play, and add treacherous mountainous areas over that, and people just happens to build villages on it for the forest riches. Mighty convenient for the young trainees who have to get out of the cozy all-terrain mobile heater. The Mongol navigator is always happy though. Well trained, decades of experience, and an endless source of bad jokes and joviality.
Yet even he cools out a bit in the storm.
“Uuchlaarai, Doctor, but we should hurry! The Fire Stallions return to the stable soon and it’ll not get any warmer”, urges the navigator apologetically. Despite looking considerably older than the trainee, the navigator looks at the young man with respect and gratefulness. Few government doctors even take a look at this remote place, preferring to indulge in the warmth of their vacation gers packed with the amenities of a hotel. And look at him now, a young American doctor no less!
“Don’t call me Doctor! I’m not one yet.”, snaps the young medical trainee. He feels a pang of regret immediately afterwards – the middle-aged man is just doing his job, and with great respect as well. It is not my nature to act so brusquely, ponders the younger man.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to yell. What I meant was I didn’t finish my doctor training just yet, and I’m just a PA for now. I thought another qualified doctor would accompany us, that’s why I volunteered to go this far out today”, says the young man, after he musters some courage.
“You decided to come and help our remote areas in the cold, something that I know a lot qualified doctors will not do. And you help cure people. You are doctor enough”, replies the navigator, brimming with a smile behind all those scarfs.
The trainee is relieved at the older man’s levity in the situation, and troubled at the same time. He still feels as though he needs to introduce at least some formalities in the name-calling on this matter, and despite graduating with flying colours, he never thought that he was ready as a PA, let alone be called a doctor.
“Not much further, doctor, we’ve reached the fork of the road. It won’t be even 20 more minutes, not even in this heavy snow”, calls the navigator confidently.
“Are you really familiar with this route? Because I can’t see a thing in this massive white-out of a blizzard. And don’t call me doctor, please. I appreciate the sentiment, really, I do, but I’m not a doctor, not just yet.”, the young man answers anxiously, tilting his head slightly forward as if he things it would help his eyesight penetrate the snow. Good God does it know how to do a blizzard here. New York snow days can suck it.
“Mr Zeolla then. And don’t worry, Mr Zeolla, I know this route better than my Land Rover. This is my home village. I was born here, and I grew up here. My parents’ place is right up ahead”, says the navigator, and once again the trainee can feel as if the man is grinning again. “This is all the more personal for me, Mr Zeolla, as among the sick is my nephew as well. He is only 18 years old, sir, the youngest of them all. My gratefulness is to you”
Zeolla just stays silent and march on behind the navigator. For one, he starts to feel that feeling again, one that he did not expect. This should only be a short hop to Asia to beautify an already great resume, one to act as a neat break from all the EMT runs and the exams and all that. He didn’t realise saving people would be this wonderful, and what the navigator just said once again affirm his decision to come here. He’ll save the hell out of these people for sure.
But another thing would be because once again his last name is butchered. Dzeeo-lah. That’s not how you say it. He gets this problem so much it disrupt his ability to think sometimes. “Am I being petty, no, I hope not, no I’m not petty,” mutters the young man.
“Mr Ganzorig?”, asks the young man as the pair climbed a flight of stairs carved in stone leading to a ger on top, the navigator bouncing far ahead as fast as a hurried gazelle.
“Yes?”, says the navigator as he pulls up the vents at the entrance of the tent, holding it up for the medical trainee.
“You can just call me Luke. It’s fine by me, and I’m younger anyway.”, chuckled the young man as he steps off the last stone steps.
The navigator did not answer for a seemingly infinite amount of time. Finally he replied, as Luke walks through the entrance, knowing exactly what took away all the levity and jovialness in Ganzorig.
“Let’s hope that your name is one of true strength and wisdom, Mr. Luke. For in my years as a navigator for Red Cross, I have never seen a sight like this, not once. And I am no weak Mongol. Pray to the Blue Sky, why does it have to hit in my home, in the ger of my ancestors!”, Ganzorig chokes up as his voice trails away, looking in the ger.
Luke understands perfectly what Ganzorig means, peering around the make-shif hospital in the tent. The ger is packed with people, in restraints on the ground, packed as close as sardines. And as somber the mood is and as sick as those people looked, no one even come close to the patients. It is an eerie quiet place, in spite of the amount of people in this tiny tent of a ger. The patients are all tied tight to the ground with heavy wooden nails as anchor, much in the way the ger is anchored, only with woven ropes, not horse skin like the tents.
“My flower, what is wrong with all of them? I thought only our nephew is…sick, and 3 in high fever? Wasn’t that just half a week ago”, asks Ganzorig weakly at a stern-faced woman, clearly his wife.
“Well, the 3 other fell into a coma, then turned out like him. Then other people come in to help hold the 3 of them down, and got attacked, then more. We tried to stop it, but before we could get them down, more were attacked. We tied them in their coma. Some committed suicide. They’d rather offer themselves sane to the ancestors in the Blue Sky than…this.”, answers the woman wearily, but in startlingly good English. “No one even want to be near them now, even as they are still asleep or bound to the earth like the gers of Genghis.”
“I counted 18, 8 awake, 10 in deep coma. Are there anymore?”, asks Luke worriedly as he thinks of a local epidemic that could ensue, threatening the village and possibly the district.
“No,” said the woman. “4 committed suicide, and we left them outside to the Blue Sky. Oddly enough, none of the vultures even took a single bite, despite these hard conditions. You musn’t touch them, both the dead and the near-dead. I may not be a doctor, but I don’t think you can save them now. No offense to your skills, doctor, but that little tote bag of yours is for the occasional cough and fever, not…this. Not even the blood of Genghis in their veins could save them now.”
“But I have to try. And at the very least, I would like to know what it is, and report it.”, says Luke, knowing full well that maybe a few more doctorates wouldn’t be enough to save these people right now. But more information can save even more people later on. Luke opens his bag, and wear his pair of blue examination gloves, as Ganzorig hurriedly walks to the back section of the ger.
“Do not let them break your skin, do not come in contact with their fluids. Be careful doctor.”, says the woman, as she quietly breaks into a sob.
“Bolormaa!!” called Ganzorig with a hoarse voice, one filled with dread and despair. “Where’s Enkhjargal??”
The woman now weeps openly and audibly, as Ganzorig repeats again and again the name, choking in between calls.
“Maybe I should go see the patients now”, Luke said softly, patting the woman gently. He can guess the relationship of Enkhjargal to the couple easily enough, and he doesn’t want to intrude. He too has loving parents, and he prays that they never have to endure such a plight.
“She’s gone, Ganzorig! She’s gone now. Our fathers and their fathers before them have welcomed her to the Blue Sky”, cried Bolormaa as she slumped to the floor, shaking uncontrollably.
Luke manages to hold back the lump rising in his throat, as his navigator loudly throws plates in the back, uttering words in between tears that he can’t understand in meaning yet very much so in feelings. “I have to know why, and how, so no one will be like Ganzorig’s daughter”, Luke says to himself.
Luke crouches next to the first person on the right, examining him. The patient is gagged with a small roll of leather, probably horse skin, and bound tight with woven rope to the ground. His skin is a slight purple in tone, much like people with anemia or hyporthermia, surprisingly firm and eerily devoid of heat. The man’s eyes are wide open, dry to the point that chaffing can be seen. At the sound of Luke’s footsteps, he starts writhing a bit and make a deep, guttural growl as he turns his head towards the source of the sound.
“That’s Nergüi, the son of Ganzorig’s sister. He was the first. He got tired after a hunt, and fell into a coma.”, Bolormaa approaches, looking at the bound patient with sad eyes.
“Where and when did he go?”, asks Luke, taking out his little blue notebook with a Hofstra logo.
“About more than a week back, before this blasted storm and when the Blue Sky permits. It is still very cold out, but clear skies always pull preys out of shelter. They too need to search for food, and Nergüi is always more fascinated with falconry than it is good for him”, Bolormaa replies with a somber smile. “Five days were what it took. Five days. One of weakness, one of fever, one of delirium and two in a coma. Then…he just woke up. With such strength, such virile, as if he cares not for his own safety, or that he just woke up from a devastating fever. Then we found out that he also cares nothing about other things. About everything, except to attack and”, shudders Bolormaa before she continues, “eat, others. The three that restrained him shared his fate after each has lost a portion of their arm.”
Luke glanced at the three right next to Nergüi, each with a chunk missing from their shoulders, as all four glanced back at Luke’s direction, turning to whoever speaks. Their disturbing lack of eye movement and blinking frightens Luke more than he would be prepared to admit. Ignoring their writhing and growling, Luke turns to Bolormaa.
“I will take some more notes of this. As much as I can. And I need to pull this information to the Red Cross as soon as I can, and as high-up as I can, to avoid red tape and panic. This could be a very bad epidemic, even though it’s just a local one. And because it seems like a new disease, we can’t take any chances”, Luke says finally, after lines and lines of notes and observation.
“Thank you, doctor.”, nodded Bolormaa gratefully. “We didn’t think much of it, and we had no internet, so we couldn’t tell anyone just yet”
“Why not after the attack? Maybe not after the first one, but shouldn’t you tell the authorities as soon as these three” Luke jerked his thumbs toward the three next to Nergüi “went crazy? And call me Luke, not doctor. I’m not a doctor just yet, you see.”
“By the time Nergüi was sick, I already called Ganzorig through his Red Cross connections. We…know you are a talented young man, but also one with ethics. And you are the best they have. Besides, we do not have phone lines or electricity up here, only a communication tower left by the Soviets in the 1970s” said Bolormaa quickly.
“No offense taken, really. I’m probably the only one there, all the rest folded to avoid the snow. I don’t think doctors should leave anyone hanging, even in the snow. Especially in the snow.”, Luke replies, waving away the woman’s concern, knowing full well how a post-Communist local government works. “All need to be done is to go to the comm tower now, yes? After the heavy white-out, even those rusty equipment can be used.”
“I afraid that is the only option, Doc..I mean Luke. The roads will be impassable for days, even months at this rate. Climate change make for a really hard winter lately – summers are drier and winters even colder. No one will be coming up here to this village – we are actually quite well off for a remote place, being part of an old bio-chem research outpost by the Soviets, so people never come up here unless they absolutely have to, or unless they live here, like I do. You either have to wait for the storm to dial down, or to wait until summer, when the route down the mountain clears. And for the first option, worry not. I already sent the town’s messenger to go see the comm tower to tell them to send out the first messages and to prepare them for yours.”
Seeing Luke’s uneasiness, Bolormaa manages a smile, despite the pain clearly evident on her eyes. “You are very welcomed here, Luke. Doctor. Save us. Please.”
Luke gives a sigh, not out of boredom, but out of acceptance and gratefulness. “I guess I’ll have to rely on Ganzorig, you and the villagers here for the time being. I’ll get to the comms tower right after this. Thank you, and sorry, for imposing in such a hard time.”
Bolormaa is just about to tell Luke to be at ease and how grateful the village is for his coming here, when the flaps of the ger flips open, letting in loud winds of the raging blizzard, getting all the attention of the growling patients, who grow less and less docile as they hear each other utter any sound.
A man in full traditional Mongolian winter coats bursts in, with a terrified look on his face. He quickly talks to Bolormaa in Mongolian, and she equally rapidly answers. Every back-and-forth takes a bit more colour from her face, until her face is drained in fear.
Luke does not asks a thing, fearing the worst.
“Comms tower are down”, says Bolormaa with no emotion in her voice. How frightened must a woman be to be drenched in complete despair like that?
“It’s just the storm, we’ll send the message later”, says Luke, both consoling the hapless woman and hoping for the best himself.
“No, doctor. There was an avalanche.”, mutters Bolormaa.
Now himself as white as a sheet, Luke asks in broken words, trying to cling to the last ray of hope: “But…but comm towers are supposed to be on top of hills or mountains, yes? Shouldn’t it be impossible to be hit by an avalanche from above?”
“It is. But it is not impervious to rock and snow breaking from beneath it.” Bolormaa slowly answers, not wanting to hear what she has to say.
Ganzorig walks out from the back, hearing everything, and even more of a broken man. He looks tired with deep red blood eyes from the crying and the pain, and Luke never know how such a happy man like his Red Cross navigator can turn to this. Heavily, Ganzorig asks in English out of respect for Luke, “Won’t the boys at the tower be able to fix the equipment?”
“No”, says Bolormaa flatly. “They’re dead, along with their machines, like the boys next door, like our daughter.”
Luke sits still in the corner, broken by the news. Isolation. Guess it’s time to work as a doctor now and stop worrying, he thinks to himself.
Luke remembers a line from Scrubs, his college roommate’s favourite show.
“You're in medicine, you gotta accept the fact that everything we do here -- everything -- is a stall. We're just trying to keep the game going; that's it. But, ultimately, it always ends up the same way.”
Outside, the blizzard still rages on.
One of the pegs inside the ger just shifted out of place a bit.