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Medical Missionary to Siberia


Bill Becknell is a general surgeon from the state of Kentucky. Or at least, that's where Dr. Becknell's practice used to be. These days you are more likely to find him treating reindeer herders out on the vast, frozen Siberian tundra of Russia's far north.

Dr. Becknell has been riding for four hours on the back of a snow machine across the trackless Siberian tundra of Russia's far north. The temperature stays well below freezing. There are no trees, hills or other distinguishable landmarks to break the flat, barren, snow covered landscape. Fog and overcast skies obscure the horizon in gray haze, and the wind never stops blowing.

Dr. Becknell said, "This is the tundra - it just goes into a white out."

Dr. Becknell has arrived at the camp of a family of nomadic reindeer herders, part of an indigenous Siberian tribe called the Nenet. The extended family lives in hide tents that look exactly like the Indian teepees portrayed in old American Wild West movies. The camp is surrounded by a vast, milling herd of reindeer and the dogs used to herd them from one grazing spot to the next.

Dr. Becknell squeezes inside the small, crowded tent to begin his examinations. Dr. Becknell is the first doctor many of these nomadic herders have ever seen, and the medicines he will prescribe and give them, the first they've ever taken.

So how did an American doctor with a successful practice wind up treating reindeer herders in Siberia? Dr. Becknell said the dream of practicing bush medicine in some far off land was a dream that began in childhood, but after medical school he fell into the usual routine of residency, then private practice and the years began to slip away. As the late 1980's brought unprecedented change to Russia, however, Dr. Becknell decided that his time and opportunity had arrived.

He said, "I reduced all of my earthly possessions down to thirteen boxes and bags and suitcases and things that I took. And I did a lot of research into how to survive because I'd never been there. And so I carefully packed six months of peanut butter and a sleeping bag that was rated to thirty below zero because I didn't know if I'd have to sleep in the street or what. And so, I was fortunate enough that within a month I was able to find a place to live."

But while finding a new home was relatively easy, other every day business turned out to be frustrating and time consuming chores. "In that country," he said, "if you want to pay your electric bill or your telephone bill, you go to the bank. They had a big long line. There was about 25 or 30 people in it. So I got in this line and when I got up to the window, with my broken Russian and this lady's pointing and directing, I knew I was in the wrong line. And I looked in the other line and it was again 25 or 30 people and so I had to stand in line again. Often, you have to go the market to buy whatever you need to eat. And I remember thinking one time that I was buying a can of beef and actually I bought a can of peas and so for supper that night I ate the whole can of peas."

Visiting patients like the Nenet out on the tundra can also have its challenges, and rewards. "What I remember," he said, "is that everything had reindeer hair on it, everywhere. Your tea had reindeer hair in the tea. Your reindeer stew had hair in the stew. Everywhere, all over your clothes, everywhere, because of course they skin them, and take their hides and use them to make teepees with. They make clothes with them and everything. So reindeer hair is everywhere! And I remember the bed they gave me to sleep on was one of the nicest beds I'd ever slept on. I had about six or eight reindeer furs piled up on the floor, and it was soft and comfortable and warm. And even though it was 20 below zero, I was perfectly comfortable."

Even though Dr. Becknell's medical mission to Russia is into its second decade, he still has a hard time believing he's been given a chance to live his childhood dream. "I never cease to be amazed that I'm here," he said. "Here I am, an American, a boy from eastern Kentucky, and I'm walkin' around doing these things. It just blows my mind. It's something that, I would look and think of Taylor or Livingston or some of these people were doing, going into these isolated, rural places. I'm just amazed that God has allowed me to be a part of that."

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