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Nothing is Impossible for Papa B - The Story of Dr. Olav Bjørgaas【Parent-Child Reading Guide】

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Dr. Olav Bjørgaas (1926 – 2019) was a Norwegian who came to Taiwan in 1954.  In his mind, nothing was impossible or unachievable.  He lived by this principle and became the guardian angel of the people of Pingtung.

A childhood with insufficient means yet full of life

Bjørgaas grew up in a poor family.  As his father was unemployed, his mother sold lomper (soft potato flatbread) to support the family.  Bjørgaas’ parents wanted the children to receive good education, but their own limited education level made it impossible for them to supervise their children’s schoolwork.  Therefore, Bjørgaas had to rely on his own efforts in his pursuit of a higher education.

The diligent and studious Bjørgaas lived up to his parents’ expectations.  His performance in mathematics and writing was excellent, and his other grades were also good.  He was selected as the student representative to answer questions when the school inspector visited.  He helped the teachers maintain order in the classroom.  Being an excellent student with good conduct, he was not bullied like other children from poor families.  But when he was a teenager, his classmates gave him a humiliating nickname, “Bjørgaas the potato flatbread”, after he was seen helping his mother deliver lomper.

A teenager who built an outlook on life in faith

At the age of five or six, Bjørgaas began to ponder why there were different classes of people.  He diligently attended Sunday school as a child and developed a strong sense of security in the church fellowship when he was a teenager.  He and his friends formed a band.  He was the trumpet player.  When he was a teenager, his father got tuberculosis and could not work.  His family received welfare assistance from the social services.  This made him determined to help others in the future.  He decided that he would not refuse the requests of those in need as long as he lived.  

Influenced by the deeds of Albert Schweitzer and the Japanese social activist Kagawa Toyohiko, and the tales and letters shared by Norwegian missionaries, he sensed the importance of missionary work.  He was further encouraged when he came across the newsletter written by Dr. Kristoffer Fotland (1905-2006) in the monthly published by the Norwegian Mission Alliance.  Bjørgaas decided to pursue a career in medicine, not for the prestige or a lucrative salary, but to become a member of the medical missions.  But when he graduated from high school right after the Second World War, the Norwegian medical schools gave retired soldiers priority to enroll.  With the help of the Norwegian Mission Alliance, he turned to the Netherlands to attend medical school.  He became familiar with Dutch in just three months.  In his freshman year, only 20 percent of the students passed the examination and Bjørgaas was among the top three.  

Bjørgaas’ service in Taiwan

Bjørgaas met Kari while in school.  She was an occupational therapist.  After graduating from medical school in 1954, Bjørgaas married Kari and together they went to Taiwan.

Upon arrival in Taiwan, Bjørgaas started working at Losheng Sanatorium.  World Vision, Lillian Dickson, and a plumber from Chicago, USA, contributed to his salary.  During this period, he was happiest whenever Fotland and Bjarne Gislefoss paid him a visit.  They communicated, freely, in their native language.

Bjørgaas and his wife adopted a girl and a boy, both Taiwanese, before Kari gave birth to a son and a daughter.

In 1956, Mr. and Mrs. Bjørgaas moved to the “Christian Clinic”, the predecessor to Pingtung Christian Hospital, to provide medical services for people with leprosy and tuberculosis, and for the aboriginal population in greater Kaohsiung and Pingtung.  In order to overcome the stigma on leprosy, they operated as a “specialized dermatology clinic”.  Bjørgaas, Fotland and the medical team traveled up the mountains to visit patients.  They would personally carry the seriously ill down the mountains to hospitalize them.  

Dr. Kristoffer Fotland (left) and Dr. Olav Bjørgaas.

 

Three years after coming to Pingtung, in 1959, polio broke out in Taiwan.  He immediately started working on the epidemic.  In 1961, he and his team set up a sanatorium in Pingtung for treating polio, the first of its kind in Taiwan.  In 1962, after making frequent visits and requests to the United States, he finally got a shipment of Sabin vaccines, with which he inoculated 4,000 children in Pingtung.  This was the first mass vaccination effort against polio in Taiwan.

Bjørgaas then set up a factory to locally produce assistive devices for children with polio.  In order to equip the children for life after being discharged from the hospital, Bjørgaas and Fotland started the Polio Children’s Home specifically to accommodate and rear them.  It is the predecessor to the current Pingtung Christian Victory Home.  Later, it was discovered that polio patients could develop scoliosis as a sequela.  Experts from the United States were invited to Taiwan to instruct in the corrective surgery.  The physical therapist that treated President Franklin Roosevelt was also invited to assist in the rehabilitation process.  

Bjørgaas noticed the needs of the children with cerebral palsy.  He established the first cerebral palsy ward in Taiwan in 1978 to accommodate those with treatable conditions.

Fighting for the children’s right to education, Bjørgaas negotiated with the Pingtung county government to set up a special-education class at Ren-Ai Primary School for children with polio.  This was the first such program for the physically handicapped in Taiwan.  For those in treatment who could not leave the hospital, he further introduced “bedside tuition”, where teachers came to the sick children on a regular basis.

Bjørgaas was not afraid of challenges and would insist on finding solutions when encountering problems, especially those involving children with polio.  He persuaded the parents to allow their sick children to see a doctor, treated their affected limbs, and trained them to use assistive devices.  He wanted them educated and provided with the skills to continue their journey in life.  All things became possible, step by step, when Bjørgaas refused to take “no” for an answer.

Dr. Bjørgaas

 

The best gift in life

Before retiring in 1984, Bjørgaas was reassigned to other countries in Southeast Asia and Africa, but Taiwan remained the place he missed the most.  After retirement, he went back and forth between Taiwan and Norway.  He was concerned about the medical care, public health, and education in the remote villages of Pingtung.  He officially retired in 2008, at the age of 82, when he could no longer renew his medical license.  In 1997, he received the Taiwan government’s Medical Dedication Award.  In 2007, he was named a Honorary Citizen of Pingtung county.  In 2008, King Harald V of Norway awarded him the St. Olav’s Medal in recognition of his contribution to medical evangelism.

After experiencing life’s hardship, Bjørgaas and Fotland would often say that the most heart-warming thing they had ever seen was a polio child crawling into the hospital and walking out using their own legs or assistive devices.  The bright smiles of the children were the best gift of Heaven, and the only reward the Norwegian missionaries were willing to accept.

 

(Photo credit/ Pingtung Christian Hospital)