Cotter Uses Medical Skills to Serve in Malaysia

At times we sit. We prop our feet up on the recliner, watch the news and talk about the ways somebody should help the world with its problems. These problems, such as the government unrest in Myanmar producing hoards of endangered refugees, should bother us. When we see someone hurting, we ought to do something about it.

Karen Cotter cares enough to do something about it.

Cotter, an assistant professor of nursing in Oklahoma Baptist University's undergraduate and graduate nursing programs, traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in February with a ministry team focused on helping the Chin refugees in the area. The group was sponsored by the First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City, which has a personal connection with the Chin people. A group of Chin refugees were relocated to the Oklahoma City area and established a congregation within the First Baptist Church building, calling themselves the United Myanmar Baptist Church.

Karen Cotter (right), a graduate of OBU who also serves as a professor in OBU's School of Nursing, treats a newborn baby at a medical clinic in Malaysia as her parents look on.

The Chin people group, made up of roughly 1.5 million people, has been displaced by the government unrest in Myanmar. Some sources say the Chin are one of the most persecuted minority groups in Myanmar. The Chin are mainly Christians, having converted to the faith in the mid-20th century, but some also maintain traditional tribal beliefs. Many Chin people travel to Kuala Lumpur at great risk to their personal safety to find refuge in the slums of the city. As refugees, the Chin live in an area of utter poverty. Families of two to five people live in a 12-foot by 12-foot room, sharing a kitchen area with four other families in the same apartment.

"Even though they had nothing in terms of physical possessions, they kept their belongings and living areas clean, and they welcomed us in to visit unquestioned," said Cotter, who visited the Chins' dwellings during her trip to Malaysia.

The missions volunteers were divided into three teams. One group, a pastoral ministry team, worked with pastors and leaders of the Chin congregations to give them strategies for helping the members of their congregation with refugee-related transitions and, ultimately, getting them prepared for the move to a Western country.

Other volunteers composed an education team. The Chin people, because of their refugee status, are not allowed to send their children to public school in Malaysia. Wanting education for their children, the Chin created makeshift schools where their children can learn during their times of relocation. The educational team spent two days teaching the teachers of the schools about western schools and sharing specific teaching strategies geared toward various age groups.

Chin children proudly display their schoolwork during a classroom session in Malaysia. A team of volunteers from First Baptist Church, Oklahoma City, helped the children and their teachers, who are refugees from Myanmar.

Cotter led the third group, a medical missions team. Cotter is a registered nurse who earned her bachelor's degree at OBU in 1994 and her master's degree at the University of Oklahoma. The team also included a registered nurse anesthetist, a pharmacist, and a fourth year medical student. Using interpreters to help interview the clients, they were able to ask the health needs of specific patients.

"Most of the clients that we saw complained of stomach issues/gastric ulcer symptoms due to the physiologic and psychological stress of the travel from Myanmar and living conditions in the city of Kuala Lumpur," said Cotter. "We were able to give some over-the-counter medications, and there was a pharmacy near one of our clinics, so we were able to tell the clients what to ask for in the pharmacy with instructions for time to take the medications."

In the truest sense of the word, the team helped the Chin refugees with spiritual, mental and physical needs.

"We conducted clinics for five days while we were there, seeing about 280-plus clients for minor medical concerns," Cotter said. "There was one baby, five days old, that had some birth defects but had surgery and was awaiting more procedures. The mother of the Chin child was concerned because the baby was making a whistling sound while he nursed. The child was very, very ill. I recommended to the mom that she take the baby immediately to the hospital. Someone was available to take him there, and he survived the crisis. That was probably the most serious illness that we saw while we were there."

Despite so many difficulties, the Chin keep their priorities on family and, most importantly, God.

"The Chin are a Christian Group; in fact, they call themselves Baptist," Cotter said. "This is another barrier for them in Malaysia where the predominant religions are Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim. They suffer persecution from time to time for their beliefs and practices, and yet, their commitment to God and their beliefs is commendable and amazing, despite the obstacles that they face."