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Dillon, Montana

Dillon Doctor - Back from Bhutan
By Perry Backus of The Montana Standard

January 10, 2003

Dr. Downey in BhutanDan Downey's imagination couldn't quite prepare him for the sights and sounds he'd find in the exotic land of Bhutan. Downey, an orthopedic surgeon from Dillon, just returned this week from a six week journey as a volunteer for Orthopedics Overseas to the isolated mountain kingdom in the Himalayas. In between busy days at a hospital in the country's capital city, Thimpu, Downey journeyed deep into a countryside steeped in legend and lore. 

"It was everything I imagined and beyond," he said. "Most days you could almost count on a couple of surprises. ... The sights were beyond imagination." 

Sandwiched between India and China, the small and isolated country of Bhutan is a place often described "as untouched by time." Downey discovered a land unscathed by the modern world and a people entrenched in a spiritual life and courteous beyond compare. 

Downey waited three and a half years for his chance to serve as a volunteer with Orthopedics Overseas. 

"I've always wanted to go the Himalayas, and I wanted to do some volunteer work overseas," Downey said. "This was the perfect opportunity. ... Bhutan is the most popular volunteer destination for the Orthopedics Overseas program." 

Orthopedics Overseas has been sending volunteer medical personnel to remote countries around the globe since 1959. In Bhutan, volunteers both teach and work side-by-side with local physicians and surgeons. 

"One of the principal goals is to teach. I gave a variety of lectures on leg, foot and ankle problems to the physician assistants," Downey said. 

When he wasn't teaching, Downey was working with the two orthopedic surgeons at the hospital. That experience was both difficult and rewarding. 

"There was a lot of trauma, lots of infection and tuberculosis of the joints. We also saw some leprosy patients," he said. "You'd never see leprosy here." 

Downey also worked with a number of patients suffering from older burn contractures. In one case, a young boy was unable to walk because the skin had tightened over an old burn wound. 

"After we completed the operation, he was able to walk again," said Downey. "It was a very gratifying operation." 

"We saw between 50 and 60 patients a day in the clinic, four days a week. Two days a week we per formed operations," said Downey. "We did about 70 operations in the time that I was there." 

In comparison, Downey probably performs about 25 operations a month in his Dillon-based practice. 

Orthopedics Overseas has been sending volunteers to Bhutan for 12 years, and Downey said the results of the cooperation between the two countries are evident. 

"That consistent good work of volunteers has created a wonderful working relationship between the two countries," he said. "Volunteers have regularly brought supplies, and there's now a very good operating room. They can take care of almost all the problems they see." 

It was outside the hospital -- on journeys by foot, mountain bike and car -- that really opened Downey's eyes to the beauty of this place sometimes called a modern day Shangri La. 

Over and over again, Downey uses the word "beautiful" to describe the "awe-inspiring" 25,000 foot snow covered peaks, the pristine forests left untouched for fear of the demons said to live there, and the hundreds of species of unusual song birds and wildlife that inhabit the countryside. 

"The Bhutanese have a very strong conservation ethic," said Downey. "About 70 percent of the country is covered in beautiful forests, some of which are very pristine. They are thought to be inhabited by demons and people don't visit them at all." 

The people of Bhutan are both spiritual and superstitious. Folklore and legend passed down through the ages continues to play an important role in everyday life. 

Downey said he was struck by heartfelt concern the Bhutanese have for others. 

"Spirituality is a way of life for the Bhutanese," he said. "The most common Buddhist prayer is for the relief of suffering for other beings. It's nice to be in a place where that sense of spirituality runs so deep." 

In a place filled with ancient temples, monks dressed in brightly colored garb and animals like the takin (Bhutan's national animal which appears to be a cross between a moose and water buffalo), Downey could never be sure what kind of adventure he'd find on his treks into the countryside. 

"You get up every morning and keep your knees bent. You just had no idea of what's coming up," he said. 

For instance, during one trek through Tamshing, Downey and his guide stopped in at a temple that housed a coat of 17th century armor that was worn by one of the country's saints. 

"We didn't have a permit for the temple, but the monks let us in," Downey said. 

Before Downey left the ancient temple, he'd worn the 50-pound chain mail armor as part of a religious rite. 

"They believed it was an auspicious act to wear the coat of armor around the inner sanctuary three times," said Downey. "It was unexpected and part of the adventure." 

Copyright Perry Backus and the Montana Standard, reproduced by permission.

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