People at Work

St. Gabiel’s is a hospital in Namitete, a rural area in Malawi about an hour away from its capital of Lilongwe. The hospital was founded by a group of nuns from Luxemburg. Recently, the hospital celebrated its 50th anniversary. They put on displays with old pictures and it was wild to see the evolution of the place and very interesting to see some of the older staff members in their younger days. Many of the nuns work in the hospital as nurses or members of the hospital staff.

The hospital serves a catchment area of about a hundred kilometer radius. This brings a lot of people to the hospital and with them comes a lot of work. I have my hands full with numerous projects.

The pharmacy always needs help. Today, Elizabeth, Yiwen and I spent some time working there. We counted and weighed pills and put them into bags so that they could be handed out. We played a game where you tried to grab the exact number of pills needed for each bag. Miraculously, I started it off by getting it first time. Unfortunately, my sister answered with 6 more perfect and I admitted defeat.

The ART Clinic, which deals with HIV positive patients, is another place that could always use a hand. Alex, the extraordinary man that is runs the clinic, is a humorous guy to be around. In the clinic I’ve been working on entering the data from each day (meaning what patients have come to check up, how well they’ve been doing with pill adherence and their weight) into the clinic’s records. Always trying to make something mundane more interesting, I invented a game using the patient numbers, which range from 1 to 2100. For each patient number, we try to figure out something that was happening in history. For example, one patient number was 1783 and somehow I remembered that this particular year the American Revolution concluded with the Treaty of Paris.

I’m also helping my sister’s project here at St. Gabriel’s. Elizabeth and her fellow Rice classmate, Yiwen, are attempting to build an incubator for the hospital. Often a mother will give birth to a child early and the baby will end up being very small. In order for it to be healthy, it needs to be kept very warm. In the place of an incubator, which normally does the job back in the US, the hospital has a “Kangaroo Room” where the new mother and her child are supposed to stay, with the mother using her body heat to keep the baby warm (like a kangaroo’s pouch). However, we visited the Kangaroo Room today and according to the staff there, these directions have not been followed very well. Hopefully a new incubator will provide a solution. In order to build the incubator, we visited the Namitete Furniture Factory to see if they could help us with the carpentry and assembly. Today we saw a lot of progress: almost all the pieces have been created and cut to their proper dimensions. Soon, potentially tomorrow, we will start building the incubator while we wait for some other parts.

I’ve just begun helping my mother, a physical therapist, train two hospital workers in basic physical therapy. The two women are cleaners for the hospital right now, and with the help of my mother, they can perform some physical therapy for the post-op patients. To help their learning process and give them some motivation, my mother and I have begun making short videos where they explain what they have learned in each lesson. Today, my mother taught them how to approach a patient (for example, if they patient’s injury is on their right side, approach the right side of the bed so that they won’t have to reach and strain their back in order to do physical therapy with the patient) and what kind of things to look out for when seeing a patient for the first time (e.g. bandages or IVs). I plan on taking all these videos and compiling them on a instructional DVD so that it can continue training people once we leave Malawi. We hope to have each video lesson in both Chichewa and English which would do a great job in bridging language barriers.

The two women that my mother and I are training are not alone. Many of the people that work at the hospital are also Community Health Workers (CHWs). CHWs provide home-based care to many patients who cannot make it back to the hospital for various reasons. They check drug adherence, symptoms and other problems that might be occurring. These are the people that my brother works with to institute his FrontlineSMS program, which uses cell phones and text messages for communication between CHWs and rural hospitals such as St. Gabriel’s. We sat in on a CHW training session, where they were learning more about how to best provide care to their patients. These people are an inspiration – they volunteer their time to better their community and are very committed to their responsibilities.

My mom’s physical therapy adventures in Malawi have brought her into contact with many people here. Yesterday, my mother and visited a patient in a wheelchair, who she has been working with for four years each summer. The man was paraplegic and has made a lot of progress since they first met – he is now able to stand and walk with help. We brought him a netbook, which is a smaller laptop with the same functionality but longer battery life, so that he can begin his work as an accountant again. The joy in his eyes as I set up the computer for him was rewarding in so many ways. He was very grateful – the first thing he did was open a word document and start typing away a thank you letter to those involved in getting the netbook to him and his family.

The people are what make this hospital. From the administrator to the man who sweeps the leaves, everyone is committed to their role. They are always friendly – yesterday I talked with a man named Kennedy, who offered me to try some ground nuts, a sign of respect here in Malawi. I graciously accepted, and today he went out of his way to drop them off at our house and explained that he grew them himself. I can’t seem to get over the friendliness and generosity of the people here: it is not only refreshing but changes your own outlook as well.