By Lt. Cmdr. Andy Baldwin, Family Medicine resident, Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton, Calif. Lt. Cmdr. Baldwinis participating in a month long rotation in Western Kenya as part of his Family Medicine Residency at Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton, Calif.
The last time I wrote, I left off in the village of Ziwa, where I had traveled nearly two hours by van to administer aid to the local residents.
One of the first patients I saw was an elderly woman named Margaret in a beautiful red dress. She spoke a bit of Swahili, so I was able to communicate that I was Dr. Andrew and from then on she kept saying Andrew, Andrew, Andrew over and over again. Using the eye refractor we were able to decipher that her distance vision was very poor. She had been stumbling around a bit on her way in, and had to have her friends help her. Now we knew why. We outfitted her with some -4.0 eyeglasses and when I put them on her, Margaret’s smile got even bigger. She was so happy. She demanded that we take a photo together, so I donned a pair of eyeglasses as well and we captured a photo in which I was definitely smiling too. I can’t seem to get the image out of my head of this adorable old woman in a red dress now being able to see where she is going in the small town.
Similar stories emerged all throughout the day at the church in Ziwa. Terrible toothaches healed by extraction, painful conjunctivitis treated by eye drops, rashes cured, parasites treated, and most commonly the gift of sight being restored or in some cases given for the first time. We had an old man bring in his even older father of 97-years old. Upon learning this, I did a double take because this elderly man in a cowboy hat did not look like he was more than in his seventies maybe eighties. Yet his son produced identification that showed that he himself was in his seventies and told us that his aunt had lived to be 108. The benefits of staying active and eating natural healthy foods, I tell ya! We were able to get both the son and his almost 100-year old father eyeglasses so they could see.
Around lunchtime, a woman in a beautifully colored dress walked in with her son who looked to be about eight-years old. The mother was concerned about a rash her son had and I gave him some medication to treat it. I talked to the boy through some broken Swahili and found out that he very much liked to run. He did not have any shoes and his feet were cut up. I told him to continue running and follow his dream. And before he was gone, I pulled out some ING Run For Something Better orange shoelaces and gave them to him. I told him that these are extra special shoelaces and when he gets shoes to put them in them, they will help him run extra fast. I still can’t get that little boy’s smile out of my head. He was so happy.
Mid-afternoon, a teacher came to the church and asked if I would be willing to go and speak to students in the village. They could not get out of school to come to the church but perhaps “the Muzungu” could come there. He said it would make a large difference in inspiring the children of this town. “How do I get there,” I asked. “I will take you by motorbike,” he said. I asked nurse Kitur if he could come as well and he agreed to go to help and translate. With my white doctor’s coat I got onto the back of the motorbike and away we went. Up and down a hill, through mud, and rocks, and many cow droppings we went. Arriving at the school, I saw a sea of green uniforms playing in the schoolyard. The activity level of the children here is astronomical. I could not spot an overweight child in the group of probably 100 kids. With one word from the teacher, they amassed and sat down under a tree. I introduced myself and Kitur translated. I spoke about the importance of believing in oneself, that God put us on this Earth with an individual heart and a mind capable of doing amazing things. I related the story of how I decided to become a doctor when I saw the ability of a doctor to heal my grandfather. I talked with them about how I have traveled the world underwater, on sea, on land, and in the air with the United States Navy. I even placed my white coat on a boy and a girl that said they wanted to be doctors. The other kids giggled and when I asked for questions they were incredibly shy. Not a hand went up. But when the teacher dismissed the class, suddenly I was awash in a sea of green as the kids were all around me, trying to touch and shake my hands. They want to touch “Muzungu Daktari,” the teacher said. Many of them had not seen a white man before. The teacher pointed out an old tattered group of five classrooms. “Those classrooms are not in use, because of how few families in this area value the importance of education. The kids stay home to work the farms. Hopefully the children will spread the word. You inspired them much today. They will speak of this for months and years to come. Thank you.” I felt a wide range of emotions, happy for making a positive difference but also quite troubled and humbled by what I had seen and heard. I returned by motorbike to the church and saw, even as dusk was approaching, a continued influx of bright Kalenjin outfits coming into the church to register.
We met with the church elders and it was decided the day had been an incredible success and that we would have to come back or perhaps some of the people could come to the Chebaiywa Clinic. In total, we saw and treated over 150 patients that day, distributed over 100 pairs of eyeglasses, and spoke to over 100 primary school children. Exhausted and with nightfall upon us, we piled back into the rickety van and made our way back to Chebaiywa. In the darkness and dodging cars on an exceedingly bumpy ride home, it sunk in the difficult life the majority of the poor in this world face — some without even the ability to see. And if they could see, not having the chance to learn how to read a book or see beyond the horizon. We had changed a lot of lives just in one day, with a little teamwork, and using our skills to the best we could. Kitur, the head nurse broke the silence, “Just imagine how many people we can help in the Rift Valley if we had a vehicle and could reach these communities every week.”
I wish, I hope, I pray.