K2 is entering the Wandering Poet Guest House for the month of May – so I will provide a brief introduction to the author: my previous self from days long gone, Kelly Mace. Yes, that’s me.
The director of WVU’s Global Health Program asked me to share my international health experience in Africa while I was a 4th year medical student at WVU in 1996 as part of an anthology of travel experience by WVU medical students, faculty, etc. I’m not convinced that it helped serve one of the purposes of the anthology, which was to inspire future students of medicine to choose an elective in international medicine (!?). In all sincerity, I was fortunate to be in the first batch of medical students in the WVU Tropical Medicine course and met some brilliant, amazing folks from across the world.
I would like to dedicate this WPA Guest House piece to 2 people who have shaped much of my medical practice and experience in International Health. Firstly, Dr. Melanie Fisher – a truly amazing Infectious Disease physician who trained me during my tender years in medical school, and was/still is! a shining example of what excellence in medicine should be (I also attribute some of my medical OCD traits to her). Secondly, Dr. Greg Juckett, a Family Medicine physician who was an integral part of WVU’s International Health Clinic, a brilliant walking fact machine and botanist (!), and most importantly, a wonderful mentor and friend over the years.
The following piece was written about my experience in Zaire (now the DRC, or Democratic Republic of Congo) as a 4th year medical student in November-December 1996. The rotation was to be only a month long, but because of a developing war in Zaire at the time, all the borders were closed and I had difficulty getting out of the country. Now, I was very safe during that time, and actually found it to be a bit of an exciting adventure, though of course my family and the medical school were wringing their hands with anxiety. I was able to leave the country before Christmas with the help of Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). What a privilege it was to experience Africa at such a young age in my career. I have never quite been the same. And I have to say I broke numerous travel medicine rules – my mother was convinced for years I may have a parasite growing somewhere!
The adventure begins…
INTERNATIONAL HEALTH EXPERIENCE, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO by Kelly Mace, MD
Tropical vegetation, the smell of orange dirt, guinea pig stew, pygmies, rampant disease, beautiful sunsets, gunfire at the border, and being trapped in a country not your own – this was my first overseas experience at Karawa Hospital in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) as a fourth year medical student at WVU. What an eye-opening experience for one who wanted to perhaps dedicate some of her life to medical work internationally.
I worked with two surgeons and a family practice physician in the operating room, participated on rounds in the Medicine, Pediatric, OB, and Surgery wards, and took “call” on one or two occasions. I have never seen pictures of disease worse than those that presented to the hospital on a daily basis, and yet I was fascinated by how people lived with and coped with their illnesses and how readily death was accepted as part of life. For example, one young man was brought to the outpatient clinic by his older brother (both were dressed in women’s clothes but were wholly unaware of the fact). This young boy had fallen out of a tree and fractured his arm many months previously, but he was not brought in for his injured arm. He was brought in because he smelled. The rotted stump of part of his humerus was poking out of the skin from an old, comminuted fracture. I could only be amazed.
My “on-call” experience entailed running down to the hospital with the family practice doc on call at 9 pm: it was dark (the generator wasn’t working) and there was a young man prostrate on the bed with possible meningitis. His skin was burning from fever, and he was delirious. The nursing staff were attempting to start IV antibiotics and perform bloodwork and a spinal tap, while I was busy swatting fist-size flying insects away from my head and curtailing a yawn to prevent insect inhalation.
Despite some of the overwhelming pathology, and the overflowing TB and HIV wards, there were many good tings like Community Health Workers who visited local villages for health education and disease prevention, do pediatric weigh-ins, etc. My colleague and I were the “big white women” (the bigger you were, the more beautiful you were) who attracted the entire village and marketplace to the educational stint. One pygmy village gave us the honor of dining with them for lunch in return for visiting the children in the village. The lunch consisted of guinea pig stewed in peanut oil, a side of a pasty white substance, and a not-too-promising murky bottle of sugar water; however, it was accepted graciously, as meat was a high commodity in the village.
My departure from the Democratic Republic of Congo was thwarted by political onslaught and fighting elsewhere in the country, much to my pleasure owing my naivety to prolong my stay, and much to the anguish of those I left behind in the US. Finally, after the third or fourth attempt, I came home. Today, I recommend a medical trip overseas (third world or more advanced), as long as you can be flexible, have a basic understanding of the culture and local practice of medicine, and are willing to accept the fact that your outlook on life will never be the same again.
From the anthology “Reflections – A Journey of Global Health”, 2005