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Helping Far From Home

Nov 16, 2015 12:07PM ● Published by Erica Shames

Gallery: Shirati Winter 2015 [10 Images] Click any image to expand.

In an area where people struggle to find their next meal, disease is rampant. Life expectancy is in the mid-40s and the leading cause of death for women is cervical cancer—a disease with a 91 percent survival rate, if detected early, in the U.S.

In Shirati, there is no such thing as early detection. And for those suffering the ravages of cancer, diabetes, HIV and other diseases, relief from pain was virtually unknown.

“In much of sub-Saharan Africa there is no access to any pain reliever,” said Dr. Alex Nesbitt, medical director, Susquehanna Home Care and Hospice. “There’s just Tylenol.”

The world’s neediest places

Nesbitt and a group of colleagues–hospice and palliative care doctors, nurses, social workers–help to ease the suffering.  Susquehanna Hospice Partnership provides financial and professional support to the caregivers in the Shirati Hospital, in partnership with Global Partners in Care, a group dedicated to improving access to hospice and palliative care for people coping with advanced but not terminal diseases in some of the world’s neediest places.         

“When we were pursuing a partnership, we told [Global Partners in Care] we wanted to be paired with a program that served a rural area and was faith-based, as we are,” said Allison Brion, co-chair of the Shirati Partnership and a medical social worker at Susquehanna Home Care and Hospice.

Shirati Hospital, a 220-bed facility serving the medical needs of the 400,000 people living in the desperate poverty of Tanzania, was chosen as a match.

“The hospital has running water but the last time we were there, there was none. They were running the hospital with buckets of water scooped from the lake,” Dr. Nesbitt said. “I have a friend there who has told me about electricity going out during surgeries. They had people holding cell phones open so the surgeons could see.”

An impossible task

The Shirati Partnership has been critical in providing the hospital with funds for much-needed morphine. In a country where people live on less than $1.50 a day, finding $300 for one month’s supply seems an impossible task.

“That’s one month’s worth of morphine for dozens and dozens of people,” Nesbitt said. “What we spend in one month at Starbucks would alleviate so much suffering.”

“It’s overwhelming how limited their options are, in terms of medicines and symptom management,” added Brion. “There are issues we just don’t deal with–like when we give a medicine to take with food, and [patients] just look at you and say, ‘Where am I going to get food?’”

Costs are shouldered

The project is a labor of love on both continents. While it bears the name Susquehanna, and the health care professionals are employed by the healthcare system, the partnership is completely independent.

The project is funded completely through donations and volunteer work, and has raised more than $40,000 in the past three and a half years through a variety of fundraising events and charitable donations. In addition to pain-relieving drugs, the money helps pay for travel to patients in remote villages, tuition for a physician and a nurse to attend palliative care training in Uganda, as well as training for volunteers.

Team members who travel to Shirati to see the program in action pay for the trip out of their own pockets. Likewise, when the team brings Dr. Steve Biko and nurse-in-charge Dorothy Kawira to the region to talk about the program and raise awareness, costs are shouldered by volunteers. “All the money we raise–every dollar—is going over there,” Nesbitt said.

“We learned on our trip to Shirati that the hospice program has absolutely no financial support other than us,” Brion said.

It too is run by volunteer doctors, nurses, social workers and spiritual leaders dedicated to easing the suffering of the terminally or chronically ill. On their own time, after full days working in the hospital, they set off in one of the few vehicles available to see far-flung patients unable to make it to the hospital.

“They really make use of what they’ve got,” Brion said. “When I was there, we had 13 packed into one vehicle. People were literally knocking their heads on the windshield.”      

Extra help

In Williamsport, Maddie Dunlop learned about the program and wanted to help. The founder of We Are Women Helping Others, a group dedicated to charity giving, she challenged group members to give more than their usual $10 monthly contribution. The objective was to raise $1300 to buy a used motorcycle for the program’s pharmacist who was taking a five-hour bus trip–each way–to access medicine.

“That was our goal,” Dunlop said. “And then a little extra for a digital camera to take photos of patients.”

The teams on both sides keep in touch regularly through e-mail, and Dr. Biko makes use of the camera Dunlop’s organization was able to provide.

“Dr. Biko sends pictures sometimes,” Nesbitt said. “He’ll say, ‘we have this very hard case; what should we do about this?’”

Nesbitt and the others are in awe of the work being done by Biko, his small staff and community volunteers. “The hospital doctor-to-patient ratio is one-to-hundreds,” Nesbitt said. “The team doing this work – it’s in addition to their jobs.”

Nesbitt has come across the occasional skeptic who challenges the wisdom of helping a cause so far from home.

“In my work, I’m focused on alleviating suffering,” he shared. “And I’ve come to realize that people are people and suffering is suffering. Moms love their children just as much there as they do here.”

Written by Robin Crawford, a freelance writer based in State College.

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