Note: Sarah Beekley, MD, a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente Redwood City (Calif.) Medical Center, volunteered late in 2010 at a clinic in Matibabu, Kenya. The clinic is endorsed by The Permanente Medical Group. While many TPMG physicians have volunteered at the clinic, Dr. Beekley brought along her three adult daughters — Anjali Joseph, Jenna Hahn, and Lauren Joseph — who volunteered in the village while Dr. Beekley worked at the clinic.
The Matibabu clinic provides medical and community health services to rural families in one of Kenya’s poorest regions. Though a tight-knit and resourceful community, the children suffer from the lack of clean water, poor nutrition, and a high rate of communicable diseases. A large number have been orphaned by HIV. Most have to leave school before their teens. Nearly every child brought to the clinic with fever had malaria and many had secondary infections or profound anemia.
Each of the three Matibabu doctors sees 50-plus patients a day, and I had to work hard to keep up. I quickly learned the basics of tropical medicine and the limits of working without sophisticated equipment. The clinic is fortunate to have some basic diagnostic equipment, health educators, and a small pharmacy on site. Despite this, there were the daily frustrations of working without the equipment that I routinely took for granted at home, such as a head CT for the young boy with a probable brain tumor, or a cardiac echo for the young girl in congestive heart failure. Tests are not cures, however, and regardless, these families had no resources for treatment.
My greatest, and unexpected, reward was watching how enthusiastically my daughters adapted to the new culture, and how creative and resourceful they were in contributing to Matibabu’s work. Jenna and Lauren put together a plan for a children’s center designed to attract young families and designed the content for a year of educational events. One of these events was modeled after Kaiser Permanente’s own educational Teddy Bear Clinics. They also translated information on sanitation and hygiene from English into the local language of Luo. They then distributed soap and educational material and performed demonstrations to both small and large gatherings in the community. Anjali worked at the Youth Center, continuing the work of a previous volunteer who had inspired a group of teens to write and perform a peer-to-peer play dealing with alcohol and substance abuse. She also took the initiative to design a handbag using the beautiful batik fabrics of East Africa. The three girls then kept the majority of seamstresses in Ukwala and at Matibabu’s vocational training program “Stitches for Change” busy sewing these bags.
My daughters, and the Kenyan youth they worked with, reminded me not to underestimate the ability of young people. Rather, my task now is to help find new challenges for them!