UC Davis School of Medicine is honoring three alumni, a medical resident and a fellow in 2009 for their contributions to the field of medicine and service to the university and the communities it serves.
2009 Humanitarian Award
Terrence Smith, M.D.
Physician Terrence E. Smith knows what happens when a nation's public health system breaks down. At a medical clinic composed of a cluster of bedraggled buildings along the Thailand-Myanmar border, he witnesses the tragic results of one such failure every day. For about half of each of the past seven years, Smith has worked voluntarily as a clinical physician and adviser at the Mae Tao Clinic in Thailand, which performs medical services for displaced ethnic migrants and refugees from Myanmar – more widely known as Burma.
Smith, who has tended to the needs of impoverished and refugee populations in Latin America and Southeast Asia throughout much of the past decade, has been named the recipient of the School of Medicine's 2009 Humanitarian Award.
Caring for Myanmar refugees
The Burmese economy once had thrived, but collapsed under the military junta government that took control in 1962. Citizens live in fear of government-induced human-rights abuses, including rape, torture, human trafficking, and compulsory labor and executions meted out to dissidents.
Thousands of disenfranchised Burmese people have journeyed across the Moei River forming the border with Thailand, and made their way to the Mae Tao Clinic on the outskirts of Mae Sot in Tak Province. They come seeking treatment for malnutrition, chronic diarrhea, malaria, tuberculosis, parasitic intestinal disorders, AIDS and other infectious diseases. Clinicians also perform dental, obstetric and post-abortion care, and fabricate prosthetic limbs for victims of land mine detonations. The clinic operates under the direction of its founder, Cynthia Maung, a Burmese physician who is living in political exile in Thailand.
Smith works without salary; the altruistic physician receives only a small stipend for rent and food. He and a couple of volunteer doctors from other nations oversee about 200 medics who perform most of the patient care.
Medics fill need
"The medics do not have medical degrees, but learn their skill from experience," Smith says.
In 2008, the clinic accommodated more than 140,000 patient|visits – more than 400 patients per day. The 120-bed inpatient facility is always filled to capacity.
Smith, who augmented his UC Davis medical degree with a master's in public health, had maintained a family medical practice in the Sacramento County town of Courtland during the 1980s; was chief of the Program Policy Section of the Maternal and Child Health Branch of the California Department of Health Services from 1994 to 2001; and served as a voluntary clinical professor with UC Davis Health System from 1982 to 2004.
He began performing international volunteer work in 1999, when he joined Doctors of the World (DOW), which dispatched him to a hospital in a volatile area of Mexico. Two years later, DOW made him the technical adviser on a reproductive health project in Vietnam. While evaluating a proposed reproductive health project in Thailand, Smith met Cynthia Maung, who asked him to help at the Mae Tao Clinic.
Smith returns periodically to California to work as a staff physician at CommuniCare Health Centers in Yolo County. He does so only temporarily, to recharge his financial reserves between stints at the Mae Tao Clinic. He does not seek another position in a political or policy-influencing realm.
"Been there, done that. I am not interested in another desk job," says Smith, who has doubts that peace and reconciliation will occur in Burma during his lifetime.
"But that really isn't the point now. It's more about helping people who are struggling to make it through life against really bad odds."