Sunday, 1 November 2009

Bush Medicine

Hi! I know it's been a long time since I've updated last- so much to tell you! Derek came to visit and I had a week off of school, so we had some great adventures.  I'll start with the first one, a bush medicine trip, and then maybe the next blog will be about traveling to a village called Bangem around with my cooperating teacher who used to teach for peace corp there.

Ok, so Derek arrives!! That was super exciting.  I was so nervous that any number of things could have gone wrong, and he wouldn't have shown up at the airport- but he did! He got in on a Tuesday night, and I had to go to school for wed and thurs, but he got a fever and was sick from all his travels, so he stayed home.  But, he tried to get better quick for our super cool trip.

So Anjana, who I'm living with now, knows this doctor, George Bwelle, who goes on these mostly self-funded bush medicine trips- so Derek and I got to go!  Derek wrote an article about it, so that would be a good summary to read- except that my computer hard drive died this week, so we lost it.  So I'll post it once he writes it again.  Anyways, I'll try to summarize how the whole thing works:

George is a Cameroonian doctor who has a heart for the remote villages in Cameroon.  He is a digestive surgeon at a hospital in Cameroon, but his main passion is to bring medical help and educational supplies to villages in the bush.  So he basically started donating most of his money and trying to get some donations from colleagues in Belgium and other connections, to develop get supplies and get a team together to take these trips on weekends to remote villages.  His hope is that he can develop relationships with these places so that the people will trust his medicine, and so that he'll be able to help the school systems so that he can make a difference.  He says that he hopes that at least 1 or 2 students from each village would be inspired to learn and leave the village for a better education and then be an example to the rest.  So basically George spends his weeks working at the hospital and planning these trips.  On weekends he gets the team together and leaves on a Friday, works like crazy, comes back on Sunday, and goes back to work to do it all over again.  He's really an amazing guy- and its just so refreshing to see someone who cares so much and who is really giving almost everything away.  In a country where corruption is so rampant, its so inspiring to see George and his team giving so much. 

Ok, so the team isn't really set in stone.  George is usually the only doctor, there are a few med students who come along, and then just some other students or people that George knows.  So I'll explain our trip:

So we meet George and two of his colleagues from Belgium, Fabian and Richard, who have been in Cameroon for 2 weeks or so helping him out, at Anj's apartment on Thursday night to talk about the trip and for them to pick up donated clothes that Anj collected.  Basically our role is to help out- give out medicine, observe surgery, whatever we want- so that we can tell others about it and spread the word mostly.  On Friday we meet up at George's house (which, by the way, is more of a typical cameroonian house- which he could definitely afford better if he wasn't giving his money away), and wait.  This is a theme of the trip, waiting.  Also not knowing what is going on.  Everyone on this trip is a native french speaker, so Derek and I are often sitting and smiling, or zoning out, not knowing what anyone is saying.   So we find out that there are 12 of us all together.  We finally jam into a bus that barely fits us, with all our belongings and supplies strapped to the roof with innertubing.  The ride was supposed to be like 4 hours, but we left late and got delayed on the road because the gendarm have many checkpoints on the road where they stop people and ask for IDs and find ways to make money.  So our driver tested positive for alcohol (he had had 1 beer so he was like .04 % or something) so we waited and waiting and then finally paid off the gendarm with 2,000 (which is like 4$).  Pretty rediculous, given what our mission is and who it is that's making it difficult for us. 

Anyways, the paved road ends and we go on a red dirt road which then turns off onto a very bumpy narrow road that goes into the bush.  We take this for a long time and finally arrive at Messamena. Because we were late, its dark when we get there and we can't have this ceremony that we were supposed to have where we would meet all the bigwigs of the town and such.  But there was a small group of students who sang us a welcome song and we met the teachers.  We stayed at this boarding house type place- very basic, but there were rooms and they cooked us food (no shower, outhouses...).  We were going to use this old, looked like it hadn't been used in 30 years, hospital so we were supposed to get it all sterilized and get started on some surgeries that night, but there were some obstacles.  First, apparently you need permission from the guys in charge to come and do anything like that, and permission to use the hospital.  Cuz we got there later,  they had all gone to bed so we had to wait till the morning and go around to each one's home and do the formal thing, take pictures, give a gift, all that for the major, the chief, and the head of the hospital.  Also, there is only electricity from dusk till 11PM, but we were supposed to have a generator which wasn't working or something the night we got there, so we didn't have any light to do anything.  So finally the next day we're able to start getting ready, by now its like noon on saturday.  Meanwhile there are people waiting outside the hospital the whole time, like all night, waiting to be seen.  

So we start cleaning- there's one surgery room, which has a basic surgery bed, and a sink- we do the best we can with a rag and dirty water and antiseptic wipes.  So basically they set up 2 consultation rooms- the patients wait wait wait and then see one of the more medically trained team members for consultation.  Derek and I bag medicine and put little code drawings on the baggies for how often you take the pills (because many people can't read).  Most of the medications are vitamins, supplements, pain medication, that type of thing.  And most patients come in and get a shot- its for the pain.  I was confused at first, but apparently the idea is that a lot of people in the village don't trust this type of medicine.  And a lot of people are in pain, because they're farmers so they work really hard and have all sorts of issues, so when we can give them an injection helps the pain for a few days, and then some medicine that will help for about a week, then the people see how it actually works, so they are more likely to trust the medicine for the next time George comes.  That means they're more likely to agree to surgery.

So Derek and I actually got to give injections- which was cool.  We mostly just learned how to do it and did a few.  Derek doesn't really like needles, so I was proud of him.  They were these huge long things that we gave to people in their thigh.  Other than that, we really didn't feel very useful.  There was a lot of sitting around and waiting.  We gave out the donated clothes to people who were waiting- but I didn't really like it.  The clothes we had were pretty crappy for the most part, and we didn't have a ton, so it was hard to find something that would fit everyone.  We'd come out with a few clothes and start giving one to each person.  Then when I didn't have any in my hands, the lady who didn't get one would clap her hands and give me this terrible look saying through her motions "where's mine?" I'd trying to motion that I had to go and get more.  Then when I gave her one, she'd smile and say thanks.  Its really amazing to see how much these people don't have, and its hard to come and just give them some vitamins and an old shirt.  But it really does mean a lot to them.  

Most of the houses at this village were made out of mud bricks.  Only the wealthy guys in the town had cars.  There was a little town center where at night there was a bar and dancing and people selling food, and some other little "stores."  When we were driving there on Friday we'd be in just bush, and then come up on some houses, and then nothing, and then another little section of houses.  Everything is really spread out.  And the people all waved and cheered when we drove by- very happy to see us.

Ok, so back to Saturday- George wants us to be as involved as we want, so I get to go in and watch a surgery! It was so cool.  Oh, so all the surgeries that he does are basically for hernias.  He only does surgery that he knows wouldn't lead to anything too complicated that he wouldn't be able to fix right there- because there's no med-evac or anything like that.  And due to the lifestyle of these people, tons of them have hernias.  (One guy was so bad that his intestines had all come out into his testicles so that they were huge.) (Oh, and he'll do like removing tumors or cysts too.  One woman had this huge cyst like in her urinary tract, and they tried to get it out but they couldn't)  So I walk into the surgery room and theres this skinny man lying naked and shaved on the table.  George gives him some injections in his abdomen so he can't feel it, but the guy is awake the whole time.  I thought that was crazy.  So they just cut him open.  George explains to me what he's doing the whole time, and shows me the nerve, the spermatic chord, the hole, a parasite they found white doing surgery, his intestines, and  then sews up the hole.  It was just George and then Richard, the nurse from Belgium.  It was really amazing to see.  I was nervous, but made it through the whole thing.  George says that he treats all the surgeries as if they're already infected, because of the conditions and because there's no followup on the patients either.  So he douses the area with iodine and double stitches him up, and gives him antibiotic. Then he sits the guy up, helps him put his pants on, gives him some pills for the pain, and he's out the door.

So George did I think 15 surgeries in all.  A few in the afternoon on Saturday, then we took a break and went to a ceremony at the school where we gave out school supplies to each kid (there was like 250 students there), and then back to work for the evening where George stayed up doing surgeries all night until we had to stop at 12 noon on Sunday so we could leave.  Most of the team stayed up too- but there wasn't much for Derek and I to do, so I guiltily slept.  There were still people waiting who wanted surgery, but we didn't have enough supplies, and we had to leave so that George could get back to get some sleep and then go to work the next day.  

Ok, so I know this was really long, but I really feel like there's so much more I want to explain about it.  It's just all so different than anything I've done before, so there's so many details I've had to leave out.  Sorry if its not a great summary, I'm trying to get out the things that stuck out the most.  Overall, it's really eye opening to see how whole villages of people live.  These people were really really poor.  And they live in the middle of now where.  Yet there's still a cell tower and cell service.  Even though there's barely electricity for a few hours a day.  The chief of the town is obviously a big tool- has a huge house and tons of stuff and actually answered his telephone to talk to a friend during the ceremony when George was giving a speech to him.  Everyone had to wait until he was off the phone to continue.  It was so rude.  And these people are so poor and have barely any health care- yet there's this whole hospital center and some guy who's the head of the hospital- but I have no idea what he does for the people.  

The rest of this team isn't like wealthy people either- they're mostly Cameroonian students.  One guy has been helping George out for years, he knows like everything about surgery now, but he didn't ever graduate from school, so he's very very far behind and dirt poor. George is trying to figure out a way to help him go back to school.  We didn't get to talk to people on the team much, only some of them spoke English, but we did find that further into the trip more people spoke English, or much better English, than they let on in the beginning.  Apparently a few weeks ago a group of med students from Boston came to help out and they were real jerks and really didn't do so well, so people were a bit apprehensive to be friendly to more Americans.  Stupid Americans :-) 

I ate viper and porcupine and caterpillars.  When I came home I wiped my face with my sleeve, and my sleeve had a huge red/brown streak on it.  We were soooo dirty.  But it was really a life changing trip.  If you want to help out, donate, get involved in fundraising, or even work out anything with going to Cameroon, you really really should.  There's no website or anything, but George has an account in Belgium for donating, and you can email him  

Ok, well that's enough for now!   I actually only have like 1.5 weeks left here.  Derek leaves on the 6th, and I leave on the 10th.  One more week of teaching, another weekend, and then I'm gone.  It's really crazy how fast it all went, of course.  I'll update again, but it might actually not be till I come back to the states. 

Miss you all!

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