Monday, November 18, 2013

Wake Up Call - Why Liberia Still Needs Clinics

Current Clinic under construction in Johnsonville
near our Heart of Grace School
We've been working with clinic building since the mid 1980's in Liberia (Camphor Clinic), but since the devasting Civil Wars that ended in 2003 clinic development has been slow. Roads are coming and clinics are being built, including a new one in the village of Zondo of which I've previously written. We have also been blessed to help another organization build "True Life Clinic" in Grand Bassa and are currently working on another clinic in Johnsonville in the City View area of Monrovia on our school campus. 

Building the Camphor Clinic in Grand Bassa County circa 1985

Wall building Camphor Clinic
GBC, Liberia (c. 1985)
However, these can all just seem like projects when we're sitting over here Stateside where we have great hospitals and clinics with EMTs, first responders, and life flight helicopters all on standby. I just received an email from a friend that shook me. It brought things back into focus on the reality of the desparate needs in Liberia. Sometimes we just need to see one of our own US citizens in the situation that Liberians are in every day to bring home the Liberian's plight. One brave lady was chosen to be just such an example to us. I will share her story below in a moment. 

No, mom isn't smoking a cig - it is the syringe cap in her mouth!

Clinic sign ready to advertise
Compound 2 GBC, Liberia
(Funded through BFCC - NGO)
Before I do I just want to say that these clinics are not just projects or fundraising campaign goals that we can reach so we can pat ourselves on the back. Great things are happening in our organization (Change Agent Network), but there are living and breathing children of God in Liberia (and all around the world for that matter) who face life threatening situations like the following story everyday. With the author's permission I've re-posted her email below. It is quite the harrowing ordeal, and I am grateful this dear sister is still with us:

Making the journey home from Liberia is always difficult.  We are leaving "family" behind and the trip itself takes over 24 hours and 4 flights to complete.  However, my return trip this year included extra challenges.

The team left Sunday, November 3rd but I needed to conduct some Change Agent Network business so I stayed behind for 5 days.  When I boarded my flight alone on Friday, November 8th, everything went smoothly. As I flew the 1.5 hours from Liberia to Ghana, I was tired from the last two weeks and was hoping no one would occupy the seat next to me when we picked up passengers in Ghana.  The stop in Ghana is an on-plane layover during which some passengers disembark, the security/cleaning crew prepare the plane for the 11-hour flight to JFK and new America-bound passengers board; all while those of us in transit remain on the plane and visit.  The turn-around takes about 1.5 hours.

I was fine when we landed in Ghana at 8:30 pm.  I pulled my carry-on luggage out of the overhead, spoke to the flight attendants and visited with passengers.  As the new passengers boarded, my stomach didn't feel well so I went to the bathroom.  That was when the trouble began.

In a 20-minute window of time, I went from visiting with passengers to being so sick and weak after 3 trips to the bathroom that I could not get up off the floor of the airplane.  I could not sit up, I had to lie down.  Then I heard the captain's voice announcing that the flight would be delayed because they had to get a sick passenger off the plane.  It was surreal to know he was talking about me.  The America-based Delta crew surrounded me and told me the Ghana crew would take good care of me.  When the wheelchair arrived I could not get up off the floor, so a strong African crewman reached down and deadlifted me into the wheelchair.  The next thing I knew I was sitting on the tarmac with the giant plane looming over my head, and two Ghana crewmen were telling me they had my luggage.  Seriously???

Thankfully, children in Ghana learn to speak 3 languages including English; but I can assure you we don't speak the same language as the word "urgency" is not in their vocabulary.  The American in me was expecting some sort of "emergency vehicle" which never arrived.    I am not sure how long I sat on the tarmac but I could feel screaming and/or tears coming.  I resisted both because I knew neither would do any good.  Finally, a shuttle bus pulled up next to us.  Then, it simply took us to the back of the airport and the two men began to slowly push me through the most disjointed airport layout I've ever seen.  I still couldn't sit up in the wheel chair and had to ask twice for them to find me a bathroom. 

We finally got to the front of the airport and stopped on the sidewalk to wait for something.  I start saying "I have to lie down."  The next thing I knew I felt like my throat became 6 inches wide and the next phase of my sickness began. 

Another shuttle bus finally arrived and took me to a private clinic that was on airport property.  Once inside, the nurses tried to admit me but I became so weak that I started climbing out of the wheelchair to lie on the floor.  They reluctantly gave up and started moving me into a little room with 5 beds and told me to take the one in the corner.  They helped me into that bed and I started saying out loud "Thank you Baby Jesus, thank you for this bed.  I am so happy to be here."  At that point, my body began shaking so violently that I was coming off the surface.  I reached for one nurse's arm and all I could softly whisper was "help me, help me."  I knew I was going down.

I am not sure who taught African doctors and nurses to run I.V.s but they have the impression that you must nearly break someone's arm with tourniquets and needles to get the job done.  They started alternately running saline solution and Cipro and trying to take my blood pressure - 70 over 40!  The next day the nurses told me "Our women's ward was closed when you arrived so we were not going to take you, but you were so sick your face turned blue and we thought we were going to lose you so we put you in the men's ward."

That first night was tough.  I was so sick I could barely get out of the bed and my stomach continued to empty itself in all directions.  They continuously ran I.V.s wide open but as quickly as they would get fluid in, my body would get it out.  By 8:00 the next morning, I felt a little better but that was short-lived. 

My blood pressure was now 70/50 but the bacteria must have been fighting back because I became sick all over again.  The two women who saved my life the night before were now off duty and I asked the new nurse for Cipro for 2 hours before he brought it.  When I needed it again, the doctor decided to switch to Flagyl which was a mistake.  About a minute after it dripped into my body I had some sort of reaction to it and I started going down.  I knew it was bad and again started begging for help.  They quickly switched the I.V. back to saline solution and ran it wide open.  A few minutes later my body was stable again.

I asked "What is wrong with me?"  The response - Cholera.  When I tried to think about what I had eaten the previous day I was told that the bacteria was probably in my body for 2 - 3 days before I got sick. 

I spent 2 days in a clinic with sick people all around me who were suffering from different symptoms but were receiving the exact same treatment.  The clinic consisted of a women's ward and men's ward with 5 beds and 1 toilet in each, a small pharmacy, a business office and no cafeteria.  Patients’ families are supposed to bring food.  My only lifeline to home was my cell phone.  My family and closest friends started calling, texting, crying and offering to get on a plane.  Truthfully, I was a world away and there was nothing anyone could do to help me.

However, the Lord provided everything I needed, big and small.  They hit me with so many I.V.s and medications that I had no idea how much the medical bill was going to cost.  The day I left Liberia I had $100 to my name.  Right before I departed, our driver asked if I would help him get money to his sister in the U.S. and handed me $1,700 in cash.  I always travel to Liberia with protein bars and had 4 of them left.  I didn’t think I would need them but decided to put 2 in my purse “just in case” which is what I nibbled on for 2 days in the clinic.  Since I was alone, towards the end of my stay I gave the clinic staff $10 to buy me 2 hard-boiled eggs and 2 pieces of toast from a nearby Holiday Inn. 

By the end of the second full day, I was very ready to go.  I called Delta to upgrade my flight to first class because I could not sit up for any period of time; and I requested wheel chair assistance.  I was so wiped out that I slept 10 hours of the 11-hour flight and could not lift my carry-ons.  About 4 hours away from New York my stomach started acting up and I started to panic.  But thankfully I found an expired prescription in my American medicine bag that calmed my stomach and allowed me to continue sleeping.  During my 4-hour layover in New York, I had to find a seat next to the wall so I could lie against it.  It is difficult to express the relief I felt when I saw the lights along New York's coast line because I knew I was home, that I would receive the best medical care possible and that I would be OK.

This was more than an adventure; it was a life-experience.  We've been talking about the need for medical clinics at our school locations but now I have a much better appreciation for the urgency.  The people we serve are hours from the nearest hospitals in Liberia and don't have the funds for transportation or medical attention.  The total bill for saving my life in the clinic - $200; outrageously cheap by American standards; impossible for Liberians.

I interviewed the clinic staff and learned that they primarily treat 6 conditions: Malaria, Gastroenteritis, Urinary Tract Infections, Diabetes, High Blood Pressure and Lumbago.  The most urgent of these are treated with I.V. fluids.  We don't need American size hospitals; we need small clinics stocked with 20 - 30 medications and we will save countless lives.

However, that is not the most important lesson I learned through this.  As I sat on that tarmac and looked at that plane I realized I was stripped down to nothing and could not count on any of my business achievements, any of my friends or family members or even the body that supports me on Earth.  In that moment I started praying "Lord, it is just you and me.  I have no idea where I am going or what is going to happen but I am too sick to handle this so you are going to have to." 

For whatever His reasons are, the Lord saved my life that night.  If I had fallen ill 20 minutes later, the plane would have taken off; and since severe and sudden dehydration are symptoms of Cholera, the doctors in Ghana and the U.S. tell me I probably would not have survived the 11-hour flight.  Also, if I had gotten sick earlier in the day, I am not sure we could have found the medical attention I needed in Liberia on a timely basis. The Lord put me in the place I needed to be, at the time I needed to be there, and surrounded me with people who could help me, all of whom were complete strangers.

My Mom picked me up in New Orleans and immediately started campaigning: "You are never going back to Liberia. You are never traveling alone again."  But here's the problem; my mother’s pleas are counter-intuitive to what I learned through this.  When you have an encounter with the Lord on that level it teaches you that He truly does have you in His hands and you trust Him even more.  Believe me; I hope to never get that sick again.  But I would not trade the misery of the illness for anything because it stripped me down to nothing and forced me to trust Him and only Him.

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