When compassion takes wings

What does an Air Canada pilot do in his spare time? Ride in a passenger seat? Keith Wight does.

Wight travels to various places in the developing world, volunteering for mission groups. When he can, he takes Physician Travel Packs with him.

For the past five years, Wight has included the small country of Belize in his philanthropic itinerary.

Recounting his most recent trip, he writes, “The five members of our team spent the 10 days working at an inner city school and church run by the Salvation Army. We painted, cleaned, did some electrical and repair work. Our main function was encouraging the workers and spending time with the kids playing hockey and soccer and just hanging out with the school children and the kids who live in the neighborhood.”

His daughter Julia (Masters Public Health) was part of the team for the third time, working with two nurses to teach health seminars to 312 school children and teachers.

She reports, “This year especially, I was struck by the Belizean people’s capacity for love and acceptance. Every year, even though the team changes, the children of the community become our instant friends. Despite the challenges of their daily life, they seem to have an undiminished capacity to love, which I completely admire and aspire to.”

The Physician Travel Packs were handed over to the Belize Emergency Response Team (BERT). Yvette Burks, the National Coordinator, meticulously went over the boxes checking the contents against the packing list. Wight says she was most impressed with the contents and the long shelf life of the medicine.

The medications will be used to assist BERTS, a youth heart clinic and various other public health clinics serving underprivileged people in Belize City.

And Wight will be back to check on the results.

He writes, “All in all, a very happy, rewarding and successful project. We are looking forward partnering with Health Partners International again next year on our 6th mission trip to Belize.”

Good news in tough times in Malawi

Rachael is pregnant with her first child – good news for her and her family in northern Malawi. However, when she recently went for prenatal care to the Ngodzi Health Center, she received devastating news.

A Canadian staff member from Canadian NGO Lifeline Malawi, the organization that operates the hospital, was visiting Ngodzi when he met Rachael. He reports: “(When she arrived at the clinic), she looked healthy and was excited about her pregnancy. I watched the blood get taken from Rachael’s finger. We all watched – Diston the hospital medic, Rachael, and me – as we saw the little “+” take form. As Rachael learned that she had tested positive for HIV, she sank against the wall and began to cry.

“Diston took hold of Rachael’s hand and began to speak to her gently, encouraging her about the ARV program and how he has seen so many people do so well and live active, productive lives. He told her about the mother-to-child infection prevention treatments that LM offers and how successful they are. Her baby could be born without the virus. As she responded to Diston’s compassion and listened to what he told her, she had hope in her eyes.”

Rachael’s story is not unusual. Malawi is a country that is struggling on many levels: it has one of the highest infection rates of HIV/AIDS, an exploding population with limited land, hunger, and desperate poverty. Malawi’s population of over 14 million lives in an area slightly larger than New Brunswick.

Canadian physician Dr. Chris Brooks has been in Malawi for more than a decade now, providing health care to the most vulnerable people in the rural northern communities. Lifeline Malawi, the NGO he founded, has grown to operate two clinics with dozens of staff and international volunteers, and a variety of programs, including support for orphans (there are one million in Malawi), counselling for people living with HIV/AIDS, and post-delivery care for mothers and babies.

HPIC has been sending shipments of medical aid to Lifeline Malawi regularly since 2003. To date in 2009, HPIC has sent close to $300,000 of medicine requested by Dr. Brooks. Without a range of essential medicines, “I couldn’t work,” he says.

In a recent e-mail to HPIC, George Mkondiwa, Chairman of the Board of Lifeline Malawi and Principle Secretary for the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development, explained that “Lifeline Malawi is now part and parcel of the Malawi health delivery system.”

“For instance, the recent expansion into the provision of maternity services at both the Ngodzi and Kasese sites will ensure that the citizens of these communities have access to these desperately needed services. The current statistic of 807 maternal deaths for every 100,000 babies born will be significantly reduced thanks to NGOs like Lifeline Malawi.

“On behalf of the Government of Malawi, I wish to thank Health Partners International of Canada for providing Lifeline Malawi with thousands of dollars of donated medicines each year. Thanks to HPIC, over 150,000 people every year are being provided with free medicines. “Bringing hope and healing to Malawi” may be the vision of Lifeline Malawi, but it is shared equally with organizations such as HPIC and the Government of Malawi.

“I urge you to continue with this noble task which is ensuring continued health for Malawians.”

HPIC expects to send at least one more shipment of medicines to Lifeline Malawi in 2009.

Five stars for the PTP

Allan and Patsy Myshrall of Pokiok, New Brunswick have been on 40 international mission trips and to hear them talk, they’re just getting started.

On a recent medical mission to the Dominican Republic, the Myshralls and their 11-member team worked with a local doctor to run mobile clinics in seven remote areas. “These people have little or no access to doctors and even when they do see a doctor, they cannot afford medication,” says Allan, who ensured that the team carried three Physician Travel Packs with them on their trip.

“They told us we would see maybe 50 patients a day,” he reports, “but the first day we opened, 400 people came looking for care. We saw and treated somewhere between 1,400 and 2,000 patients in the two weeks we were there.”

The Dominican doctor did the assessment of the patients and then the nurses from the team dispensed the medications he prescribed. According to Myshrall, the doctor was thrilled with the contents of the PTPs. “He said that for quality and variety, the PTPs were worth five stars.”

The team treated patients with fungal infections, malnourishment, pain and infection, as well as several cases of tuberculosis. The multivitamins for pregnant women and malnourished seniors were especially appreciated.

One 14-year-old girl suffering from malnutrition and infection came to the clinic for help. She was pregnant, and already had a two-year-old son. An 84-year-old man in another community that had never had health services came to consult a doctor for the first time in his life.

The team also visited a hospital where patients had to pay for their own medicine. Myshrall reports, “We were able to help one seven-year-old who had kidney infection and was dying by the day, because his mother could not buy the meds he needed. She heard through one of the cooks in the hotel that we had medicine and asked if we could help. When our doctor heard what type of medication he required, he found it in the PTP and took it to the hospital so the boy could be treated. Several days later the boy was able to eat and go home.”

Having seen the difference free medicine makes for these isolated and underprivileged communities, Myshrall is a fan of the Physician Travel Pack, and of the companies who contribute the medicine that makes the packs possible. “I just want to thank the companies that have donated drugs,” he says. “They have helped a lot of people.”

This doctor is flying

When Dr. Ben Cavilla completed his family medicine training in June, the last thing he wanted to do was to get tied down to a clinic.

“My career is based on humanitarian work and it’s easy for a doctor to get on a treadmill,” he says. Ideally, he will work in Canada as a general practitioner for eight months and devote three to four months a year to missions in developing countries with the NGO he founded called the Flying Doctors of Canada.

“This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” says the 32-year old doctor based in Victoria, B.C. He began doing medical missions as a student and El Salvador was the first place he went to. “My experience in Central America redirected my career goals. I abandoned my goal of becoming a radiologist and planned on gaining a broader experience to be more versatile in the field.”

This past summer he brought a team down to Nicaragua for the first official mission trip of the Flying Doctors of Canada. The missions will feature clinics and development projects. “I see myself as a janitor with an overflowing toilet. There is a need to get the plumber involved. We need to ask why people in a particular community are getting sick to begin with,” he explains.

Communities will be selected carefully. “The community must need intervention, want intervention and be ready for it,” he says. “We would aim to leave a community within three to five years.”

On the first trip, Cavilla went for a week and brought three Physician Travel Packs. “We wouldn’t have been able to function without the packs,” he says. “We could never have procured between $15,000- $20,000 in medication.”

The Nicaraguan government is very strict about medicine entering the country. “”Thank God we went with PTPs,” he says.

Cavilla’s team consisted of four doctors and two nurses. They were based in San Juan del Sur and from there they went out to various villages to provide two days of clinics in each. In total, they saw 392 patients in six days. “Every day we packed up the PTPs and then re-sorted them for the following day,” he says.

Cavilla estimates that 80 per cent of the patients they treated were women. “The issues we saw related to poor maternal health care, sexually transmitted infections, pelvic inflammatory disease and births gone bad,” he says.

One patient who stood out for Cavilla was a 24-year-old woman who had a hole in her heart. “This would have led to her death in the next five years without treatment. We are paying for her care and she will be having cardiac surgery.”

Planning is underway for the 2010 trip “We are hoping to expand quickly and work with HPIC again. We couldn’t have done this trip without HPIC.”

Grandma’s ambulance

wheelbarrowIt was not Canadian nurse Margaret Blackler’s first trip to Haiti as a medical mission volunteer, but it was the first time she saw a patient arrive at their makeshift clinic in a wheelbarrow.

“An elderly lady was brought to our clinic in a wheelbarrow by her family,” she reports. “She had previously suffered a stroke, and continued to suffer from hypertension.” The local doctor who worked with the team was able to assess and treat the woman with medicines from the Physician Travel Pack.

Blackler and the Canadian team held clinics in three slum areas in Port au Prince. “The people we saw have little income due to a lack of available jobs, even if they are educated. Most don’t have money to see a doctor and if they go, they may not be able to pay for medication – or renew their prescriptions.”

Blackler noticed that many patients who had been previously diagnosed with high blood pressure were not taking their meds, and their BP was extremely high. “Also, certain infections seem to reoccur or are just left untreated.”

Vaginal and urinary infections were a common problem, as were stomach acid complaints, anemia, headaches, upper respiratory infections, and dehydration and worms in young children.

Most of the patients presented with ailments that could be treated with basic medicine, good nutrition and hygiene – simple essentials that were scarce in these communities. “I believe it would be unusual for them to get vitamins, Tylenol or any medication to relieve stomach ailments since they have little money. Many are anemic from poor nutrition. Those we saw had no indoor plumbing.

“It is incomprehensible to us who have so much to truly realize the impact these medications have in the lives of those who lack even basic nutrition, let alone health care, due to their poor standard of living.”

The medical team held six clinics, where they were able to see and treat approximately 550 Haitians with the medicine from HPIC. “Without the donation we could not have held the clinics,” says Blackler. “Each medication is needed and appreciated. No small or large mission or project could succeed without these donations.”

Teaming up for healthy holidays

Derek Desrosiers, CEO of uniPHARM Wholesale Drugs, says partnership with HPIC is a good fit

Derek Desrosiers, CEO of uniPHARM Wholesale Drugs, is in the business of healing. This year, in partnering with HPIC, his efforts have gone global.

Over the Christmas season, each of the 150 independent pharmacies that are supplied by uniPHARM in British Columbia, Alberta and the Yukon received gift catalogues from HPIC to distribute to their customers.

“In keeping with uniPHARM’s mission of providing quality medicines to our customers, we believe that promoting the idea of a Christmas gift of medicine to people in the developing world is a natural fit,” says Desrosiers.

Glen Shepherd, president of HPIC, agrees. “The HPIC gift catalogue offers people who are benefiting from excellent healthcare services here the opportunity to provide desperately needed medicine to somebody living in poverty. It’s a great gesture at Christmas, or anytime.”

According to Desrosiers, his group didn’t have to think twice about supporting HPIC, both through the catalogue campaign and a corporate contribution. “Everybody was on board – the directors, the staff and the shareholder pharmacies.

“In this season of peace and joy, we are thrilled that Health Partners International of Canada is providing assistance to developing countries in need of medical aid.

“We know how important medicine is. We’re just happy to do our part so that more people will be able to have access to it.”

Freedom and healing for Trokosi slave

For hundreds of years in the Volta region of Ghana, West Africa, the Trokosi practice (Trokosi means “slaves to the gods”) has been enslaving young virgin girls in ritualistic sexual bondage.

These innocent children, some as young as five years old, are given by their parents under the fear of the death curses of the Fetish Priest to serve a life of slavery in the Fetish shrines as payment for the crimes and offenses of others.

Teams of Canadian volunteers, including several healthcare workers, travel to Ghana every year with IN Network to support a program of freeing and rehabilitating the girls and women who are caught in this slavery. The Trokosi Liberation and Vocational Training Project has so far pushed the Ghanaian government to pass a law making the Trokosi practice a criminal offense, has successfully halted the practice at 31 shrines and has liberated some 3,500 women as well as their children.

The release of the women is just the beginning. They are integrated into IN Network’s Vocational Training Program where they learn to read and write and are taught a marketable skill, enabling them to eventually provide for themselves and their children. The children also are rehabilitated through the loving staff at IN Network schools. The entire family is provided with nutritional food, clothes, counselling and medical care.

That medical care comes in part from the Canadian doctors who have been taking Physician Travel Packs with them to treat the victims of the Trokosi ritual for the past five years.

Dr. Neal Stretch and his wife Aggie, a teacher and sexual abuse counsellor, are veterans of the IN Network medical mission trips to Ghana. Dr. Stretch calls these trips a “short-term mission with long-term benefits.” Over the years, the Stretch’s have seen sustainable improvements in the community, as local healthcare workers are being trained to continue the services when the visitors are gone.

And every year, they see the difference their efforts and the gift of medicine have made.

“Two years ago,” says Dr. Stretch, “we saw a teenage girl with osteomyelitis in her jaw. It was infected and draining pus. She literally had a hole in her face.” He treated his patient and left her with a strong regimen of antibiotics from the PTP, and returned to Canada shortly after. “We saw her again the next year,” he says. “She came to say thank you. She was completely better.”

“In fact, people often walk back to our clinics years later to say thanks.”

Dr. Stretch refers to the PTP as the “cornerstone” of the medical missions. “The PTP has become an invaluable tool in our work. It is integral to the success of our program,” says Dr. Stretch.

“I would never leave home without it!”

(Trokosi information from www.innetwork.ca)

Christmas in the tropics

Baby Riley, one year later

“Our team encountered an abandoned baby in the bateye of Antonce near Yamasa, Dominican Republic,” reports Canadian high school teacher Peggy Dunne.

“We were told that the child had been left there because his mother could not face seeing her child die.”

Stories like this are not uncommon in the sugar cane plantations where filthy conditions, extreme poverty and lack of basic services plague the daily lives of hundreds of families.

Dunne was part of the Dominican Republic Experience, a program of Canadian student and adult volunteers that travels to the D.R. twice a year to support the community development work in the impoverished Yamasa district.

Since the first trips organized by then high school teacher Roger Perry in the early 1990s, schools and clinics have been built and staffed through contributions of money, manpower and medicine supplied by the program. The teams that travel there now regular bring several Physician Travel Packs to supply the ongoing needs of the clinics and the young doctor they are supporting.

The main clinic in the town of Yamasa is staffed on a rotation basis with pediatricians, gynecologists, G.P.s and surgeons. Carmen, a full-time nurse, offers basic care along with Mercedes, a nurse who works part-time.

The satellite clinics in the very poor outlying areas are serviced by the team’s sponsored physician, Leonardo de Jesus Acosta, affectionately known as Dr. Leo. Medicine for the clinics is carried in large tool kits in the back of a truck. Dunne says, “These clinics are very basic but a valuable means of getting medical help to the remote locations.”

It was while visiting one of these satellite clinics that the team came across the dying infant. “Dr. Leo was able to use the medicine we had brought with us to save the baby’s life,” reports Dunne. “We have two photos: the infant Riley when we first found him, and the same child, one year later, happy and very much alive.”

Riley’s life is not the only one to be transformed by the medicine offered through the PTPs. Dunne says that over time, the quality of life of the whole community is changing. “I personally have witnessed a real improvement in the health and the lives of the people who are residing in the often deplorable conditions at Antonce since we began bringing PTP kits with us.”

This may help to explain Dunne’s appreciation for the packs, and the feeling that it’s Christmas in the tropics when the medicine arrives.

“We are so very grateful to the companies who donate the medicine,” she says. “Our nurse Carmen, close to tears, sang us ‘Feliz Navidad’ when she opened her first PTP.”

Family receives compassionate care

Kofi’s mom stays by his bedside at HEAL Africa hospital

Canadian RN Connie Smith, who lives in Goma, DR Congo, visited HEAL Africa Hospital and met with some of the people who have benefited from donations from HPIC. She tells this story:

In the pediatric ward I introduced myself to Kofi. Both his legs from ankle to hip were in a cast. I found out he was five, that he was from the village of Kitsombiro and that his favourite food is fish. In his hands he had a wad of Congolese francs. “What are you going to buy, Kofi? Cookies?” A big smile came over his face as he nodded yes.

I’m glad I didn’t ask him why he was in the hospital. Soon Kofi’s mother came in and I asked her how Kofi got injured.

She lowered her voice as she began their story. “One night I was home with my husband, Kofi who was about four, and my baby daughter Olive who was sleeping. Without warning, armed rebels – the Interahamwe – swarmed our village. Two drunken militia came into our house. They tied up my husband and told him, ‘We’re going to rape your wife and we want you to see it.’

“I was terrified, but heard myself say, ‘Listen – let me go wash up first. I’ve been in the field all day and my body is not clean. It will only take a little while, then I’ll come back.’

“They fell for it! Of course I took my baby and ran. I got away from them. Once they realized what had happened, though, they were furious. They beat my husband silly and they shot off their guns. Kofi took the worst of it. He was shot in his right knee and left arm.

“Once the danger was past I came back to find my family. Our village had been burned to the ground by the rebels. Kofi had been treated at the local hospital, but he needed more specialized care. We got on the back of a pickup and drove for five hours to Goma and got him into HEAL Africa Hospital.”

Kofi has had several surgeries and he may still need more. His parents lost everything in the attack, since the rebels burned the village when they left it. Having the supplies needed for this little boy to be cared for has been a great boost to them, as they know they couldn’t afford to access them on their own.

Eastern Congo is becoming more peaceful, but there are still armed groups active in the rural areas, terrorizing innocent families. I am amazed that under the circumstances, Kofi’s mom was able to think on her feet rather than be paralyzed by fear. Her survival instinct kicked in, and although she was not able to protect her whole family, they are together again and receiving the care they need.

Before I left her she begged me for a job, but I regretfully explained that I don’t have work for her. She was encouraged only by my explanation that my work is to tell her story so that more Canadians will continue to help families like hers.

In memory of Yvonne Martin, a friend of Haiti

Health Partners International of Canada is deeply saddened by the news of the death of Canadian nurse Yvonne Martin in Haiti.

Martin was in Haiti for the fourth time on a medical mission with the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada – a partner of HPIC.

Our hearts go out to her family, her church, and the doctor and nurses who were with her when she lost her life.

May her example of compassion and service be an inspiration to us all.