This post is in response to the recent NY Times article on the death of Nick Castle, a volunteer serving in China at the same time I was serving in Mongolia. You can read the article in its entirety (as well as a link to other volunteer stories) here.
Volunteers have been sharing their experiences in light of this article. This is mine, and mine alone. I can only speak for myself.
The story of Nick Castle is a tragic one: Mistakes cost the man his life. I remember when the news was broken: It was shared widely amongst serving volunteers. We only had the official Peace Corps announcement to go on, but it is always saddening and scary to hear that someone like you, doing the same job you are a few hours away by plane, had fallen ill and died. Illness and health concerns weigh heavily on the mind of every volunteer. In Mongolia, you worry about clean water, fearing amoebas and bacteria that can cause you great distress. You also worry about hypothermia and frostbite, which are real concerns over half of the year.
The original article mentions the extensive health training volunteers receive, and volunteers in Mongolia are no different. Safety and security reign supreme in every training, but in a close second comes health sessions. The way Mongolia is set up is quite different from China. It was fascinating to read how they worked in China. In Mongolia, there are two American medical officers and one Mongolian assistant. At the time of my service, both officers were nursing professionals.There are no regional medical personnel like there are in China. They are all in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and volunteers have to travel to the capital to receive treatment from Peace Corps.
I must say, they were one of the best parts of my experience in Mongolia. They were always available and actively encouraged volunteers to call them with concerns about their health. When I had problems, they were always quick to respond with help over the phone and in person. I heard about some of the trials of my friends with their health issues, and it seemed that they were dealt with professionally and courteously.
During my service, Peace Corps Mongolia had a very good staff. Were they perfect? Absolutely not. There were many events, mostly dealing with volunteers breaking rules, that I felt were handled very poorly. There was miscommunication, sometimes leading to frustration, that angered many volunteers. Overall, however, I would rate it as good, particularly in regards to the medical staff. I have heard that this is not the case in certain posts. Other posts also think Mongolia is the toughest place to be sent as a volunteer, but the staff made the transition and subsequent service smooth. It enhanced my experience exponentially. Both of the medical officers I had left with my group, but I sincerely hope that their strong tradition of excellence continues in Peace Corps Mongolia.
It saddens me to hear that this is not the case in every country, and that a complex series of events in China cost a young volunteer his life. If you were wondering about how it was in Mongolia, I can assure you that knowing how good it was put my mind at ease during my service.