Saturday, 19 February 2011

A Journey to Africa

By Lou Perretta MD

I am an emergency physician from here in Lake Oswego who has discovered a wonderful way to give back to the developing world. I became involved with an organization called Project Helping Hands ( in 2007. Project Helping Hands is a Medical Humanitarian Organization specializing in short term missions to underdeveloped counties around the world. Since then I had been down to Bolivia four times giving medical clinics in the Lowland Jungle and in the Altiplano. We are an organization made up of volunteers, mostly doctors and nurses, who give of their time and finance their own trip including airfare, lodging, food and all in country expenses. In addition, these same volunteers that travel also collect medical supplies to bring to the areas we serve.

In January, I traveled to Kampala Uganda to participate in a 2-week clinic in Kawempe at the edge of the slum. This was my first time travelling to Africa and I found our host and the people we served to be very welcoming us. I felt that they greatly appreciated the work we were doing for the people of Uganda. Our team for this mission consisted of 2 physicians (myself included) from the Portland area and a third physician, a retired Emergency physician who now lives in Tanzania. We had with us 13 highly skilled emergency and critical care nurses, 3 student nurses, 1 medical student in her last year of study from the Netherlands, 2 support personnel, and a dentist from Kenya. Our host was the pastor of the Miracle Center church in Kawempe, Robert Nabulere. He and his wife Rose opened the church for 7 full days of clinics. The members of his congregation helped manage the clinic and provided support in the form of translators for us (the native language is Ugandan). Our team saw over 3300 people in those seven days and I will give you some idea of the cases we saw and the impact we made.

We started from Portland OR, San Jose, CA, San Diego CA, Phoenix AZ, Hugo MN, St. Louis MO, Charlotte NC and Toronto, Ontario. It took 40 hours to get to Entebbe, but it was a welcome site to fly in over Lake Victoria signifying the conclusion of the long journey. We were met by our hosts and given a tour of Kawempe. This area is just north of the city of Kampala, which is the largest city and the capitol of Uganda. Surrounding the main road were thousands of small clustered structures with narrow lanes between them and corrugated metal roofs. This comprised the “slum” where we would be holding the clinic and seeing most of the patients from. Seeing this area from the air or even from the side of the road, was nothing like walking into the ‘slum” and meeting the people there.

Children flock to your side when you walk up the narrow lanes lined with garbage. You are greeted by an acrid smell of garbage and sewage. The children come to us and are smiling and happy to meet us. Many of the houses contain only one small room where an entire family eats, sleeps and lives in. The government subsidizes their housing, however they need to pay for their food and water. There were markets in the “slum” selling everything from food to hardware to electronics. After my first walk through the area, meeting the people, smelling the smells and seeing how they live, I began to look at the area in a different light. After my fourth walk through this area, I began to view it as a neighborhood. The people living here were not concerned over what they did not have but appreciated what they do have. This neighborhood is where both our patients and the Ugandan volunteers helping us run the clinic and translate reside.

Our first day had us up early to start the clinic at 7:30 AM. Upon arriving at the clinic/church, the first thing we observed was a throng of people and a line stretching all the way up the hill from the clinic as far a I could see. We had decided to try to see 500 people a day but there were more than 500 on that line. Our volunteers from Kawempe did a wonderful job controlling the crowd and giving out numbers from 1-500. The first person there arrived at 2 AM to get into the clinic. The clinic seemed overrun with people trying to get care and we were able to see 530 people that first day. We developed a great relationship with our Ugandan volunteers that day and were impressed with their ability to support us in that busy clinic and their willingness to learn about what we were doing.

Each day of clinic afterward was just as busy with us seeing many people each day. On that second day of clinic, one patient had a number of large tumors covering his face and impairing the breathing through the nose. There are many cases of HIV or AIDS in Uganda and we learned that the adults do not receive treatment for their disease because of lack of the ability to pay for the treatment. We suspected that the tumors were related to advanced HIV disease and paid for him to see a doctor to have the tumors biopsied and start his HIV treatment after confirming the cause of the tumors. Another older man who could not read traveled over 100 kilometers (62 miles) to reach the clinic. We had some reading and distance glasses available for the first 5 days of clinic. When he put on the reading glasses, a big smile came across his face and he said that this is the first time that he has been able to read in years.

On our third day of clinic we had two critical cases come in. The first was a 9-month-old child that was having difficulty breathing. She needed inhaled medicine to open her airway allowing her to breathe. At the same time, we had a 27-year-old woman who had given birth about 10 days earlier. When we examined her, she appeared to have a serious infection of the uterus, which caused her temperature to rise and her blood pressure to drop. We sprung into action and gathered both these patients and our staff accompanied them to the hospital.

Mulago Hospital was the public governmental hospital for the general population of Kampala and all of Uganda. Members of our team stayed with these patients at the hospital to pay for the doctor to see them and the medications they needed. The woman needed IV fluids to treat her low blood pressure and antibiotics to treat her infection. She was admitted to the hospital. The child needed breathing treatments and medication and got better after that treatment. Our team was with them at the hospital to see that they received care and that it was paid for.

In addition to providing treatment we would provide education, helping the people understand the disease and the causes for it. An example would be the numerous patients coming to the clinic with various forms of sexually transmitted diseases (Syphilis, AIDS, Gonorrhea, Chlamydia and Herpes). We would provide treatment for them if needed but always educate them and offer ways to help them prevent disease. The people of Uganda also educated us westerners about their customs and traditions.

The most rewarding part of this experience was our opportunity to interact with the kind people of Kawempe, Uganda. For anyone interested in short term missions such as this one, I would encourage you to look at he website and consider volunteering your time or resources.

The website is