Sun, Nov 24, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: Doctor from the North Sea

Longtime Norweigian medical missionary and cofounder of Pingtung Christian Hospital, Olav Bjorgaas, died in his hometown of Stavanger on Nov. 15

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Olav Bjorgaas speaks in Taiwan during an event for the release of his biography in 2013.

Photo: CNA

Nov. 25 to Dec. 1

Olav Bjorgaas’s dream to serve as a medical missionary in China was dashed when the Chinese Communist Party expelled the Norwegian Mission Alliance (NMA) in early 1949.

The 23-year-old had worked toward this goal since the end of World War II, and was four years away from completing the schooling required for the task. Dejected, he considered heading to the former Dutch colony of Indonesia instead.

Meanwhile, the NMA staff were stranded in Hong Kong when they received a telegram from one of their long-time missionaries, Guri Odden, who was deported several months earlier. She informed them that she was on a small island 180km from China, where the Presbyterian Mackay Memorial Hospital welcomed the NMA to continue their work there.

In the spring of 1949, Bjorgaas received the news: after finishing his studies, he would be heading to this small island called Formosa.

Bjorgaas would make Taiwan his home for most of the next 28 years, caring for countless leprosy, tuberculosis and polio patients. He also co-founded Pingtung Christian Hospital and the Victory Home, which originally housed polio patients and now serves developmentally disabled children and adults. He died in his hometown of Stavanger, Norway on Nov. 15.


Just a month after graduating in January 1954, Bjorgaas said “I do” twice — first to his then-fiancee Kari and then to the NMA. On May 23, the couple boarded the SS Venus, arriving in Keelung on July 7. He was greeted by Kristoffer Fotland of the NMA, who had left his job at Mackay Memorial Hospital and set up a mission in Hsinchu. Odden had moved on to do similar work in Japan.

There were four other NMA members in Taiwan at the time, “scattered across the island without a job description, they would decide what to do through personal connections they made,” states Bjorgaas’s biography by Bjorn Jarle Solheim-Queseth. Bjorgaas thought he would be working at Mackay, but plans had changed since Fotland’s departure. The couple decided to spend their first two months learning Mandarin.

Bjorgaas had seen his first leprosy patient during a stop in Hong Kong, and was “drawn to this strange and mysterious disease,” writes Solheim-Queseth. He expressed interest in treating such patients in Taiwan, only to be told that there were already two Western doctors on the task. But by the time he arrived, one had died and the other had suffered a stroke.

A month after Bjorgaas’ arrival, American doctor Joseph Leyburn Wilkerson came calling on behalf of Lillian Dickson. Nicknamed “Typhoon Lillian,” Dickson first arrived with her husband in 1927; they returned after World War II and she established Mustard Seed International to provide various public health services.

The job was exactly what Bjorgaas wanted — to help out at the severely understaffed Losheng Sanatorium (樂生) for lepers in today’s Sinjhuang District (新莊) in New Taipei City. Back then, it housed more than 1,000 patients. Bjorgaas agreed immediately.

It was not an easy time, as the patients did not trust him. He was too young, didn’t speak Mandarin and practiced a different religion. In addition, many Westerners had already passed through here and vowed to help, few fulfilling their promises. Morale was low, residents were in constant pain and suicide was common. About 350 patients also had tuberculosis, which Bjorgaas also tried to cure.

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