12/06/2013 09:51 am ET Updated Feb 05, 2014

Experience Travel: A Stranger's Compassion in Mongolia

This was written by Katie Doherty ( as part of our Experience Travel series in which travelers share stories of authentic and memorable travel experiences and what makes them special.

I was exploring the vast, rugged Mongolian plains, acutely aware of the fact that my safety was entirely at the mercy of the notoriously unpredictable and half-wild Mongolian horse. Not wanting to show any fear in front of my proud hosts and incapable of commanding the horse's behavior whatsoever anyway, I allowed him to break into a gallop. It wasn't until safely dismounting later that afternoon (when I was finally able to focus on something other than not getting bucked off) that I noticed the pain in my left eye and recalled my earlier collision with the low hanging branch in the yellow aspen forest at the edge of the steppe.

Overnight, the cut in my cornea become extremely infected and by the next morning, I was disoriented, mumbling in pain, and incapable of opening my left eye. I couldn't tolerate the agony caused by turning the exposed nerves in my eye towards the bright screen of my cell phone long enough to dial my parents for much needed words of comfort.

I knew that I needed medical attention quickly. However, despite increasing foreign investment in the country's economy and a growing tourist industry, systems of public transportation remain underdeveloped. Official taxi businesses are just beginning to emerge in Ulaanbaatar, and many people rely on hitchhiking to travel. Fortunately, my host had an acquaintance in the city who owned a car and agreed to drive the three hour distance to Terelj National Park to pick me up.

Buoyna, the acquaintance, was a shorter woman with a cute bob and recognizable Mongolian features -- dark eyes, high cheekbones, a round face, and rosy cheeks. She spoke briefly with my host (in Mongolian, she could speak no English), took my hand, led me to the passenger side of her car and drove me to seek medical care in the city.

When we arrived at the first hospital, Buoyna put her arm around my shoulders and led me into the packed waiting room. Demonstrating surprising aggression for such a petite woman, she pushed aside several disgruntled men and women waiting anxiously in line to be seen by the doctor. When we finally reached the front desk, Buoyna fought with the receptionist for several minutes before reluctantly accepting her refusal to admit a foreigner. We drove to three more hospitals and clinics where a similar series of events occurred. Each attempt resulted in a heated argument between Buoyna and the staff, rebuff, and a greater sense of desperation as my pain worsened and the afternoon turned to evening.

At that point, I would have understood if she chose to drop me back at the hostel so she could return home to cook dinner for her husband. Instead, Buoyna led me back to the car and drove to a teaching hospital. There, the young doctors recognized the seriousness of my injury and rushed me past the long line of patients. "Very very dangerous..." the doctor said as she ushered in two more to provide second opinions. She pushed two antibiotics and several bottles of eye drops into my shaking hands, "...use eye drops every hour or could lose vision."

Buoyna picked me up the next several mornings and drove me from my hostel to the hospital to receive care. On the fifth day, though I was still completely blind in my left eye, I was showing signs of improvement and decided to return to the countryside to rejoin my group. When I got into her car, Buoyna pulled out a plastic bag, opened the new CD inside and started humming along to the "Mamma Mia" theme song. For the next two hours we played the song on repeat, enjoying the fact that though we couldn't speak the same language, we could at least sing the catchy main verse together.

A few days after she dropped me off, I came to learn the irony of meeting Buoyna. My host informed me that Buoyna's daughter had passed away suddenly from a heart defect two years earlier. We were from opposite sides of the world and strangers who could hardly speak a word of each other's language. Yet for those six days, she treated me with a mother's love and tenacity, as if I were her daughter. The compassion she showed me not only saved my vision, but changed how I see the world.