By John Hall, MD
I’ve been a member of the Academy’s Volunteerism Committee for four years, and in 2013, I became the chair. Through my participation on the committee, I’ve met the most amazing, committed dermatologists in the world. I’ve volunteered at the community level over the years, but I had never given my time to people and charities in under-developed countries, as other committee members have.
So, this year, when a friend encouraged me to go to Kenya on a humanitarian mission, I decided that this was my chance to practice what I had preached for so long.
I live in Kansas City, which has a fairly large number of Kenyan immigrants. Several local churches joined forces to support the Kenyan immigrants’ native country by organizing local volunteers to dig a well and build a medical clinic in one of the poorest regions in south central Kenya.
This spring, I traveled with a group of local physicians, nurses, and other volunteers to Thawake, where we found that the living conditions were miserable. There is no electricity, running water, or sewage system, and the drinking water is hopelessly polluted.
One patient walked six miles and slept in the grass overnight to be first in line at our makeshift clinic.For three days, we saw patients from dawn until dusk. During that time, we as a group saw 1,400 patients, and I saw 240 patients with just skin diseases. One patient walked six miles and slept in the grass overnight to be first in line at our makeshift clinic. Other patients waited in line for days for medical treatment. We were able to see all but 300 people waiting in line. The day after we departed, a physician volunteer from Nairobi treated the remaining patients.
Most of the patients had some form of infection, and we saw endless cases of malaria, tinea, and dramatic pyodermas of the lower extremities from insect bites. Many children had tinea capitis and adults had tinea corporis, some of which was infected.
We worked in primitive conditions with inadequate medical supplies and medication. One patient with an insect bite presented with signs of anaphylaxis. Her leg was swollen twice the normal size and she was gasping for breath. Fortunately, we found some epinephrine behind a box in the corner, as well as IV hydrocortisone, and saved her life.
A woman who had hidden her pregnancy from her parents was waiting in line when her water broke. I was the only medically trained volunteer available to help. I had never before delivered a baby — not even in medical school! The 7-pound baby girl and mother both were fine. The mother named the baby Faith Neemah, which is Swahili for “grace” and also the name of one of the sponsoring churches.
In another harrowing instance, a mother brought in her son, who had a severe case of chicken pox with a high fever. A volunteer drove six hours on the worst roads I’d ever seen to get acyclovir to treat the boy. We smashed up the tablets and gave them to him, which probably saved his life.
Every adult and child wore colorful, pristine, and beautifully made clothing. At first we thought they were dressing for us, but we were told that this is how they dress daily. Unfortunately, the downside of their attention to fashion and cleanliness resulted in contact dermatitis from the harsh detergent they use to wash their clothes and bodies.
In spite of the terrible conditions, I was simply amazed at the spirit and positive attitudes of the local people. They waited in the relentless sun for days with little food and water. Yet, no one complained. They only expressed gratitude that we took the time to treat them.
The Academy has inspired me to volunteer for things I never thought I’d be able to do at 65 years old. As a result of this remarkable experience, I'll be able to look all my hard-working and humble colleagues in the eyes at my next Academy Volunteerism Committee meeting!
My recent trip to Kenya changed me forever and I feel blessed beyond what I could ever have expected. The people of Kenya are enduring, proud, joyful, generous, and a gift to this planet by a knowing higher power!
Dr. Hall is an instructor at Kansas University's Dermatology Program, associate professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Missouri Kansas City, and a 20-year volunteer at the Kansas City Care Free Health Clinic. He also is chair of the Academy's Volunteerism Committee.
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