A DUKHA REINDEER herder family in Mongolia receives a delivery of vitamins brought by Sas Carey of Middlebury in a trip last year. Carey is returning to Mongolia this summer to complete a health database for the 207 herders and to work on her second documentary.
June 25, 2007
By MEGAN JAMES
MIDDLEBURY — When it comes to traveling in Mongolia, Sas Carey has a lot working against her. The country, defined by the Gobi desert in the south and Siberia to the north, is inhabited by nomadic people who rely primarily on horses for transportation and almost exclusively on meat and dairy products for food. Carey is a 62-year-old vegetarian, lactose-intolerant and deeply afraid of horses.
And yet the Middlebury nurse and spiritual healer returns, year after year, developing a project she calls Nomadicare: advocating for Mongolian traditional medicine, providing Western laboratory supplies and honing a method to bring the two together.
“I really believe that integrating Eastern and Western (medicine) is the key to health for the world,” she said. “Even the World Health Organization and other groups are beginning to get it too; they’re talking about harmonizing.”
Next week Carey will make the journey again. She plans to visit the Dukha reindeer herders in the country’s northern taiga region where she’ll work on a health database for the 207 herders and conduct interviews for a documentary film.
Carey has more than enough in her favor this time, including support from the Middlebury-based nonprofit Ecologia, countless donations from Addison County residents and businesses, a growing network of Mongolian shamans, doctors and interpreters and a hearty stockpile of protein bars.
Her interest in the country began in 1994 when a client of her private practice Life Energy Healing suggested Carey travel to Mongolia with the American Holistic Nurses Association. Carey protested that she couldn’t afford it. So her client asked how much she would need and signed up for seven years of sessions — enough to fund the entire trip.
At the Institute of Traditional Medicine in Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar, Carey met a doctor adept in both Eastern and Western practices, Dr. Boldsaikhan. So moved by his philosophies, she asked him to take her as a disciple, and he accepted.
“Western medicine targets the symptom and assumes the system will heal,” she said. “(Mongolians) balance the system, then they believe that the piece will heal. If we can come at it from both sides — how beautiful — then you really heal.”
The next year Carey returned to train with Boldsaikhan, and two years later she returned to work for the United Nations on water sanitation and hygiene issues.
In 2002, she brought two full laboratories donated by Porter Hospital, Middlebury College, Fletcher Allen Healthcare and Yale New Haven Hospital. She also began interviewing and filming women in the Gobi Desert, a project that resulted in “Gobi Women’s Song,” a documentary she later screened at universities, festivals and museums around the U.S.
Ultimately, Carey is more concerned with ensuring Mongolians are educated in their own traditional medicine — the Buddhist medicinal practices were forbidden during the Soviet period — than with showering them with Western donations. This became apparent when the two laboratories she provided proved less reliable than she had expected.
“The laboratory is not sustainable,” she said. “For one, it uses disposable parts, you have to bury those somewhere. And sometimes they don’t have electricity.”
In the Gobi, where Carey made her film, electricity was available from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. in the summer. Sometimes they couldn’t afford diesel to fuel the generator so there was no electricity at all.
“What they really need is something easy, sustainable, cost effective and culturally appropriate,” she said.
Carey’s long-term goal is to start a pilot project in the South Gobi province, in which the 22 regional doctors would convene for six weeks of training in traditional medicine. She estimates the program would cost her about $25,000, and she plans get it rolling next year.
“Then I want to take it all over the country,” she said.
The work she will continue this year began in 2003 when she first traveled to the edge of Siberia where the Dukha people herd reindeer. She interviewed everyone she met to start compiling their health information and to gather the beginnings of a new film.
But her follow-up journey the next year didn’t go so smoothly.
She broke her foot before leaving for the taiga, three days into her arrival in Mongolia. And unlike the first visit, in which she and her interpreter, cameraman and other guides traveled by car, this time they did it by horse.
The doctor in Ulaanbaatar put her foot in a cast and told her not to walk on it. She asked them if they had crutches and they said no. “Well, put some more plaster on the bottom there, I’ve got to walk on it,” she said.
Riding to the reindeer herders took eight hours, crossing rivers, climbing steep hills and avoiding boulders. She couldn’t get off the horse, she said, because her cast made it impossible to walk on uneven ground. Her horse’s reins were too short, and every time the creature looked down, they slipped out of her hands.
“I thought I was going to die every minute,” Carey said. “I’m really terrified of horses. I think I got stampeded by a horse in another life.”
When she arrived, the Mongolians were shocked. They told her no one over 50 would ever take that trip on a horse, adding, “If any other American had gotten here and broken their foot on the third day, they would have gone back to America on the fourth day.”
But Carey stayed and sure enough, returned two years later.
“I just had to do it again,” she said. “Because I had taken some footage of them and I wanted to share it with them. If I’m going to take anything from them, I’m going to give something back.”
Editor’s note: People interested in donating to Carey’s project should contact Ecologia’s Carolyn Schmidt at 623-8075 or send a donation marked Nomadicare to P.O. Box 268, Middlebury, Vt. 05753.