Finding Paradise in Taiwan—Dr. Peter Kenrick
Esther Tseng /photo byLin Min-hsuan /tr. byScott Williams
Cambodian battlefields, Kurdish refugee camps in Iran, the Zambian countryside.... Dr. Peter Kenrick, chief of emergency medicine at Taitung Christian Hospital, has practiced medicine in many far-flung corners of the world. Asked about the motivation for his medical travels, he replies simply, “Just for fun!”
Kenrick first came to Taiwan on a whim, and never imagined that Taitung would become his long-term home. After 34 years here, he states earnestly, “I am Taiwanese. I’m from Dulan, Taitung County.”
Dr. Peter Kenrick first came to Taiwan on a whim, and never imagined that Taitung would become his long-term home. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
According to Confucius’ Analects: “The wise delight in water, the benevolent in mountains.” Dr. Peter Kenrick has arranged to meet us today at the Mt. Dulan trailhead in the southern section of the Coastal Mountain Range. Standing on the viewing platform, Green Island and Orchid Island are clearly visible in the distance. Kenrick arrives on his bicycle, covered in sweat and a little out of breath. The tall and slender doctor offers us a precise explanation of his condition in Mandarin: “I just rode 4.2 kilometers, all of it up a grade that averaged 13.9%. It took 38 minutes.”
The 61-year-old Kenrick uses Mt. Dulan, which both the Amis and the Puyuma peoples consider holy, as his “gym.” Having also cycled the Pyrenees, which always feature in the Tour de France route, he gives the Dulan ride a thumbs up: “This road is three or four times harder than the Pyrenees.”
Peter Kenrick, chief of emergency medicine at Taitung Christian Hospital, speaks to his patients in Mandarin and likes to ask jokingly, “How come your Mandarin is as good as mine?”
Born in Melbourne, Australia, Kenrick was preparing to return to Australia from Britain in 1985 when he happened to see a job posting for St. Mary’s Hospital in Taitung. The posting mentioned a two-month probation period, and the hospital was about halfway to his intended destination, so thought he might as well give the place a look. He never imagined his impulsive stopover would last for 34 years.
He says he was lucky. On arriving in Taiwan, he traveled straight to lovely Taitung and its gorgeous scenery. He says if he’d gone to Taipei instead, his stay in Taiwan probably wouldn’t have lasted very long.
Kenrick had worked in Saudi Arabia and Zambia before coming to Taiwan.
He spent the first year of his residency in Saudi Arabia. While he made money there, he says that one year was enough for him: “Extremely conservative Islamic countries are very ‘abnormal.’ You have to be careful what you say. You can’t look at women. If you do look at one, it’s seen as her fault and she’s the one who is blamed!”
Kenrick then joined the Red Cross and was assigned to Zambia, where he worked in a 100-bed hospital that had only four doctors. He says that their patients were all seriously ill, suffering from issues such as peritonitis, bowel obstructions, and obstructed labor. With so many patients to treat, he worked more than 100 hours per week. Making matters still more challenging, the position was unpaid and he was expected to cover his own living expenses. “I spent nearly all I had. Taiwan, on the other hand, offered everything I could want, plus a salary of NT$20,000 per month,” recalls a smiling Kenrick, contrasting his experiences in the two countries.
Kenrick is an avid cyclist who got into the sport at the age of 15, and regularly rode more than 100 km at a time. After arriving in Taiwan, he became enamored with riding the mountainous trails through Taitung’s villages. In those days, he not only worked at St. Mary’s, but also visited indigenous villages to treat patients with a trained nurse and anesthetist named Sister Patricia Aycock. Taiwan’s National Health Insurance system didn’t yet exist, so they cared for patients who couldn’t afford to pay free of charge.
The tall and slender Dr. Kenrick poses for a group photo with his colleagues from Taitung Christian Hospital’s emergency room. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
The Office of the President invited Kenrick to join in the singing of the national anthem at the New Year’s Day 2019 flag-raising ceremony. (courtesy of the Office of the President)
Doctor to the world
Kenrick went on another Red Cross mission in 1988, this time to Cambodia’s Kampong Speu Province. With the country in the midst of a civil war, Kenrick spent his days not only treating pneumonia, meningitis, and malaria, but also amputating the limbs of soldiers injured by landmines.
“When things were bad, I amputated legs every day. Six or seven or eight a day. Sometimes more than 20 a week. Outside the hospital, the gunfire was nonstop!”
His girlfriend (and later wife), Wang Yuan Ling, was a translator at St. Mary’s at the time. Kenrick was deeply moved when she made the difficult trip to Cambodia, traveling by way of Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, just to see him. After that, it seemed only natural that he would return to Taiwan once he finished his work in Cambodia.
Kenrick and his wife, Wang Yuan Ling, explored the Arctic and Antarctic Circles together. (courtesy of Peter Kenrick)
As a young man, Kenrick was frustrated by Australia’s lack of big peaks and used to visit New Zealand every year to hike on its tallest mountain, Aoraki (Mt. Cook). In 1994 his itch to travel spread to Mt. Everest, for what would become nine consecutive years of hiking vacations in the area. But now he traveled with his wife, Wang Yuan Ling. “She’s probably one of very few Taiwanese women to have visited Mt. Everest so many times.”
In the mountains, Kenrick’s focus was not on scaling summits. Rather, hiking was an activity to enjoy when he wasn’t practicing medicine. In 2002, he spent three months as a volunteer doctor in a high-elevation clinic 4,500 meters up the slopes of Everest. “Is there anything more joyful than seeing patients in a place that offers you daily views of majestic peaks?”
While Kenrick cared for patients, Wang used the clinic’s small oven to make pineapple cakes from canned pineapples. The trail to the peak didn’t pass by the clinic, but when word of the cakes got around many professional climbers began dropping by to “admire” them. “The cakes enabled me to meet many famous climbers, including Peter Habeler, who was the first to summit Everest without supplementary oxygen, and Wally Berg, the first American to summit Mt. Lhotse, the world’s fourth-tallest peak.”
Kenrick moved to Taitung Christian Hospital in 2002, doing the work of one and a half doctors by seeing patients in both the emergency and outpatient clinics. The hours were grueling, but he periodically recharged himself with months-long leaves of absence serving as a ship’s doctor on icebreaker cruises with his wife. The leaves enabled them to spend portions of five consecutive years exploring Alaska and both the Arctic and Antarctic Circles. “I loved traveling with my wife, so of course I wanted her to come with me. We sailed on all kinds of icebreakers, including the world’s largest nuclear-powered icebreaker.”
In the aftermath of Typhoon Morakot, Dr. Kenrick and a Taitung Christian Hospital medical team flew by helicopter to Daren Township, then inaccessible by ground, to provide medical relief. (courtesy of Taitung Christian Hospital)
This group photo of Kenrick (far right) and his colleagues at St. Mary’s Hospital in Taitung, including hospital director Sister Agnes McPhee, was taken not long after his arrival in Taiwan. (courtesy of Peter Kenrick)
Kenrick is very attentive to his patients. Here, he personally assists with a wheelchair.
Filling a void
“Returning to Taiwan reminds me how much I love it. Everything about it is great. It’s a paradise.” A puzzled Kenrick observes: “Many Taiwanese don’t understand that Taiwan is both beautiful and very safe. It’s not like Australia, where many drug users steal things and sell them to secondhand markets to support their habit. Taiwan doesn’t have many secondhand markets reselling stolen goods.”
In 2008, Typhoon Morakot knocked out the Southern Link railway and highway, isolating indigenous villages and cutting off support. Kenrick and a medical team from Taitung Christian Hospital flew into Daren Township’s Tuban Village (Tjuluqalju) by helicopter to provide emergency medical care and otherwise attend to disaster victims’ needs.
In a more recent effort to help people, the hospital has been raising money to build a cancer treatment center for patients in Taitung, and is now just NT$50 million short of its funding target.
However, Kenrick points out that the real challenge isn’t fundraising or construction, but rather finding doctors willing to staff rural medical facilities over the long term. Many leave after just two or three years in the countryside.
The always easygoing Kenrick’s expression turns serious when talking about areas in which Taiwan’s National Health Insurance system can still be improved: “If you want to resolve these kinds of problems, you have to learn from systems in other countries, and allow the doctors of family medicine who are on the front lines to carry out simple gynecological and surgical procedures. Reserve hospitals for serious conditions. That’s how you avoid wasting medical resources.”
In addition to being a doctor, Kenrick is a self-taught carpenter. He says, “When you watch TV for three hours, you come away with nothing. If you work with wood for three hours, you can produce something that gives you a feeling of accomplishment.”
Kenrick’s Taiwanese identity card is a testament to his contributions to rural medical care in Taiwan.
Kenrick made the cabinets, dining chairs and some of the lamps in his home himself.
A low point
Kenrick long desired to become a Taiwanese citizen. That feeling was particularly strong during his early years in Taiwan, when he worried every year that his residence permit wouldn’t be renewed. He gained permanent residency in 2004, but still couldn’t vote and enjoyed fewer rights than citizens in areas such as inheritance.
Kenrick personally designed his Dulan home, creating a villa-esque structure on previously undeveloped land. An enthusiastic builder of model clipper ships from the age of 15, he is skilled at making things by hand, and has crafted the home’s bedframes, cupboards, dining chairs and even table lamps himself. He and his wife also painted the colorful oil paintings hanging from the walls in their spare time after returning to Taiwan from their trips to distant mountains.
Kenrick received Taiwanese citizenship in 2017, following the Ministry of the Interior’s amendment of the Nationality Act, and its acknowledgment of Kenrick’s contributions to Taiwan through his 30 years of practicing medicine in a rural area. On acquiring his Taiwanese ID, Kenrick, who is the winner of a Medical Dedication Award, stated: “My life and livelihood are here. I am Taiwanese. I’m from Dulan, Taitung County.”
Sadly, tragedy struck in the next year when Wang was killed in a traffic accident while cycling to work. This horrific loss was made all the worse by the fact that they didn’t have the opportunity to say goodbye to each other. Nevertheless, having Taiwanese citizenship did lessen some of the legal burdens associated with her death, such as matters related to the inheritance.
Asked how he’s doing, Kenrick says, “Not good! There’s a void in my life now.” But he then turns the conversation in a more positive direction, observing: “I still cycle, and still have furniture I want to make, so at least I’m keeping busy.”
When Kenrick’s wife passed away in a tragic accident, friends and family worried that he wouldn’t be able to manage chores on his own. But Kenrick says the chores were mostly his anyway. The loss of his beloved soulmate of more than 30 years has cast a shadow of loneliness.
These brightly colored paintings and the cabinet are Kenrick’s own work.
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama