Yet another day in Kenya:
Today was extraordinary. We woke up at 7:00am and all 19 of us piled into two matatus (Volkswagen bus-like vehicles), about to part for the Siaya county—the home of “Mama” Sara Obama, Barack’s grandmother. First of all, the matatus are so cramped they make the economy class of airplanes seem spacious. I had both legs asleep within the first 20 minutes of the drive. Despite the driver telling us repeatedly that the drive was only supposed to be 45 minutes, an hour came and passed and we were still bouncing down the pothole-filled road. Second, the driver took us to the wrong location. When we finally got it across to him that we wanted to see Mama Obama, he had no idea how to get there, and proceeded to pull over every five minutes to ask someone on the side of the road. We had left two hours early to allow ample time to arrive, and we were over an hour late to our meeting. That’s what we call “Kenya time”.
The visit to Mama Obama was not like anything I had expected. She lives in a small, gated compound that has been converted into a farmstead. Goats, cattle, rabbits, chickens and all kinds of other animals wandered freely within the fenced area, surrounded by mango trees bearing small but sweet yellow fruits. This was not at all what any of us were expecting. After a bit, Mama Obama was helped to her chair by her translator (she doesn’t speak a word of English. Instead, she speaks almost entirely Luo and a bit of Kiswahili). She allowed us to ask her questions, but refused to talk about anything related to politics. Instead, we asked about her relationship with Barack Sr and Barack Jr. After picking some mangoes from the trees near the edge of her compound, we hit the road again.
This time the drive was rather short, and we made it to the only hospital in Sagam in a short 20 minutes. Dr. Burke had promised us a chaotic scene, but had not prepared us for the sight that awaited us as we pulled into the parking lot. There on the lawn, sprawled for dozens of yards in every direction, were over 500 children and parents. They had heard the hospital was offering free services for the day, and the announcement had drawn crowds. The doctors of our faculty split up and got straight to work seeing patients. The students wasted no time in finding ways to make themselves useful. I shadowed Dr. Burke for the majority of the time, assisting in the gathering of medical history from patients, organizing and recording clinical notes, and helping patients into and out of the waiting rooms. I took temperatures of a few dozen children, ages anywhere from six months to 10 years. I also watched Dr. Burke’s interaction with the children and parents. He was tirelessly happy. Watching him work made me realize the incredible compassion it takes to work with patients day in and day out. Screaming children, parents who could barely speak English, and the sheer number of patients was enough to make many doctors from the United States run for the hills. But Dr. Burke kept his smile alive for all four hours we were there. In that time period we saw almost 50 patients.
A few memorable cases stand out. I watched a six-year-old boy seize due to his epilepsy, and felt powerless when Dr. Burke told the family they would have to travel to Nairobi to get the required brain scans for the epilepsy drug prescription to be filled. I knew his family will never make it to Nairobi, and the little boy will probably die due to his condition. Another seven-year-old girl presented with an advanced staph infection that Dr. Burke guessed was drug-resistant. She will probably be a chronic carrier of the bacteria, prone to breakouts that turn into painful sores all over her legs. Yet another girl presented with moderate malnutrition, her arms no bigger around than a cardboard tube for paper towels. She was also suffering from sickle-cell anemia, a common occurrence in East Africa. Finally, a girl presented with mild fever and diarrhea, and who we later discovered had recently lost both her parents. The doctor treating her stopped writing on his pad and held her in his arms for a few minutes while she silently cried into his shoulder.
I’m guessing a lot of people might be put off by what I have just written about, but what I saw was compassion for human life at its greatest. This is what I think being a doctor is all about. And honestly, I couldn’t have solidified that statement until I was looking into the face of that girl. Practicing medicine isn’t about procedures, drugs, prescriptions or scans, it’s about making someone who is at their most vulnerable a more whole being. Sometimes those material things are necessary to accomplish this, but there are no prescriptions for hugs or someone who says he cares.
Again, for those of you reading this, do not be saddened by what I’ve described. Instead, try to understand what is happening around you and do your best to ease the life and suffering of those around you, especially those you have never met, for that is what I have learned today.