And that means dissuading them from following superstitious practices.
The shaman occupies an esteemed status among the 100 households in the Phiêng Khàng border village in Phieng Pan Commune, Mai Son District of Son La Province, comprised mostly of ethnic minority groups like Mong, Xinh Mun and Thai.
Vi Van Vien was a shaman for many years in Phieng Khang village, making a living by performing important spiritual ceremonies for the locals from the moment of birth until their death.
Years ago, every time someone fell ill, the first thing their families would do was to consult the shaman to either heal the sick or perform an exorcism to drive away the evil spirits believed to be the cause of the disease.
It didn’t matter if the disease was successfully treated or not, the fee for these sessions usually proved to be an expensive for these families whose livelihoods were based on small-time crop production and livestock rearing.
That’s why Vien was not at all happy when the Phieng Pan border station (under the Son La Province Military High Command) was set up and the military doctors started ramping up their efforts to steer locals away from their reliance on dubious traditional healing practices, effectively undermining his influence and income.
His chagrin went quite to an extreme – when his elder sister suffered from a stroke, the military doctors tried to convince the family they needed to bring her to hospital for a proper treatment, Vien refused to follow their advice and tried to cure her himself.
Her sister didn’t survive, but a silver lining out of this tragic affair was that he had softened his attitude towards the doctors and later even allowed them to examine him.
Whether it was luck or not, during the examination, the military doctors have found that Vien was himself suffering from high blood pressure that might subject him to elevated risks of stroke, similar to his sister.
This diagnosis changed his perspective on modern medicine – now Viềen had the sense to come regularly to the provincial-level hospital for check-ups and take medicine, if he didn’t have time, he would visit the border station.
The military doctors also tried to keep track of Vien’s health by checking up on him if he missed a scheduled appointment.
“Thanks to the treatment and free medicine from the border station’s military doctors, my condition has now been stable, my family and I cannot thank them enough,” Vien told Vietnam News Agency.
To Tran Duc Thien, a military medical officer of Phieng Pan border station, Vien’s true act of gratitude was that he no longer takes requests for “healing ceremonies” from the local people and instead refer them to medical centres in the area for proper diagnosis and treatment.
“For the last ten years that I was stationed here and lived with the ethnic minority people, I have always tried to make the differences – no matter how small – in their perception, to make them aware of the importance of right healthcare practices in cases of illness,” Thien said.
Thanks to the military doctors' practical activities and patient persistence, the local population has warmed to the military doctors and modern medicine – more and more people have had the sense now to go to the doctors for treatment.
If the border station has the capacity and equipment, the ill will be given free treatment and medicine, if their condition proves beyond the station’s facility and doctors’ capacity, they will be referred to higher-level doctors with detailed guidance.
Thiện said in complicated cases where the patients need to be admitted to central-level hospitals in major urban areas, the station’s officers would try to call for donations to help the patients and their family have peace of mind, finance-wise, during treatment.
According to Lieutenant Colonel Pham Van Toan, Chief of Phieng Pan border station, more than 1,000 people come to the station each year for examinations and treatment and are given free medicine.
The funding for the medicine comes from State budget and partly from contributions made by officials and soldiers themselves.
In addition, the military medical unit has also managed to connect with benefactors to provide support for children from impoverished households who suffered from birth defects such as cleft palate and heart disease.
To date, 24 children with congenital deformities have been examined and operated on free of charge.
Vì Thi Cuong often said the military doctors here had gave her son, suffering from narrow heart valve, a new life.
Her youngest son used to faint out of the blue, but as her family was so poor and they lived so far away from the district’s township, she was discouraged from making the trip to the hospital.
Fortunately, during a free examination tour by the military doctors of the Phieng Pan border station, her son’s heart condition was discovered and they have helped her secure enough money to travel to Hanoi to seek treatment.
Her son’s condition has now stabilised.
“Not only did they save our son, the border station’s military officers even helped us buy a cow and now she has given birth to a few calves, which makes a nice income for us, alleviating a lot of our difficulties,” Cuong said.
Lieutenant Colonel Phan Van Toan said that he would continue to promote the role of military doctors in raising awareness of the population in the area.