|By Surafel K Gebreselassie, M.D
They lowered the stretcher down on to the mud floor in front of the clinic, a rapidly made stretcher of sheep skin tethered on its corners to wooden holders. Four muscular hands of farmers carried him for over several miles. Behind them stood a woman holding her two little boys, their face crisscrossed with dried up tear. A five and seven year old, I would guess.
A grueling medical school was finally over. Or so it felt after six years. Ties in place, shirts tucked in, their creases military crisp, we lined up to board the campus bus to our new destination with palpable determination and innocence to impress and make a difference to a community we belong to. We were assigned to work at the Asendabo health center, some 280 km south west of Addis Ababa. The team comprised of two interns, graduating nurses, pharmacists, laboratory technologists and environmental health students. It was part of the community oriented philosophy of Jimma University School of Medicine. Logistics was arranged and paid for by the school.
We arrived at mid-day. The city was hard hit by a malaria epidemic. There was no time to rest. The health center’s few inpatient beds were full. After a brief introduction by the medical director, one of only two physicians for a city of over 100,000, and a quick fixture of lunch, we went straight to work. Two registered nurses toil the day working as nurse practitioners. Our presence was immediately welcomed. Both nurses haven’t had a vacation in over a year. They took this opportunity to travel and visit their families in the north. We divided work almost immediately. I took the inpatient service. The health center’s only car was broken. There was no alternate transportation for those who need referral to tertiary care service provided at JimmaHospital.
A middle aged man with liver failure blotted with fluids; a teenage girl who just gave birth to twins, her husband furious for not having boys as if the sex of the kids were not determined by his own sex chromosomes; an elderly woman and her two teenage girls with malaria. It was almost sun set when we finished evaluating each patient adjusting medication when I heard footsteps coming closer. I turned around and saw fear and despair on a beautiful face. I gasped for air as though my aorta was dissecting. Her two boys were clinging to her blouse. The younger boy is fighting with flies on a piece of sugar cane trying to squeeze the juice out first. She didn’t need to explain. I rushed to the man on the stretcher.
The horse ride to the villages was fun. Time flew by quickly. The malaria epidemic abated finally with no winners but with promise to fight it out again next season. It was mid-week when we picked up our last assignment; to vaccinate the kids against polio. We set out to vaccinate as many kids as we possibly could. We headed to the villages on horseback, on a bike and alternately on foot, mesmerized by the amazing beauty of the landscape. However, I could not get past the thought of why, we, as a nation were choking with such despair. There was no time to dwell on the past so I kept on moving. A couple of hours later we reached our destination. People were waiting for us en mass. Word was out that we were coming with candies. Everyone wanted one, grand pa, mom, dad, the kids, literally everyone. It wasn’t my idea but it worked any way. At the end of the day we were led to a beautiful grass house, one of a kind in the village. We were treated with delicious food and drinks. The honey wine in particular was great. Slowly things started to make sense. A man in his forty’s, his wife and two boys stood up to say thank you. I looked at them straight in the eye. How did I forget the ordeal of the first few days, the trials and tribulations of helping a family, the slow recovery? When I saw them with their full house, with their cattle, their horses, their farm, their friends and relatives, I panicked at the thought of the unthinkable. I thought about the people who didn’t make it. I thought about those who would die next season of malaria and the fight that awaits the next group of doctors.
We packed our vaccination kit and headed back to our place. I saw the young boy running towards me to give me what was left of the sugar cane. I gave him the last candy that I saved for myself. With that, I left this beautiful region and its kind inhabitants with a bitter sweet feeling.
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