Sometimes it hits me that I have an unusual number of “firsts” in my life, and this year with MAF will most definitely fill my life to overflowing. I arrived in Kenya to begin a new job as Roving Journalist for Mission Aviation Fellowship, and a week later flew to Madagascar for the first of many research trips.
The last two days began with some interesting “firsts”. MAF pilot, Josh Plett, flew us down to a village about one & a half hours from the Madagascar capital of Tana to visit a team of doctors on a week long “Madagascar Medical Safari”, referred to as MMS. We arrived on the forth of five days and stayed overnight. The plane landed at a grassy airstrip about 3 km away from a wide river on the opposite side from the village of Beroroha. Getting to the village required a drive to the river, crossing the river in a canoe-like boat, then walking for about 15 minutes in the sweltering sun to the hospital. We had left Tana at 6:30 AM, and arrived at the location at about 9:45, soaking with sweat, red faced, and in desperate need of liquid and a breeze of any kind.
In contrast, two of the doctors had been pulling teeth, and doing circumcisions since 6:30 AM, while the other three medical personnel (a doctor, nurse, and volunteer medical student) saw patients who filled the shaded area next to the building, waiting their turn. A pastor sang and preached to those waiting. By 10 am the first two doctors took a break to eat breakfast, and by 11:30 AM they were back to perform three major surgeries that lasted until 10 PM, without a lunch or dinner break.
The surgeries were a first for me. I had never really watched a full abdominal surgery before where I could see the inside organs of a person. And this was no ordinary abdominal surgery. The 37-year-old woman, Nestine, had a tumor the size of a volleyball. She looked pregnant, and had suffered from this condition for more than a year. With no money for a trip to Tana, plus surgery (costing over $300), lodging, food, and medical fees, they felt there was no hope. She would simply die eventually. MMS charged $7 for a surgery that lasted 2 ½ hours.
The second surgery was for a 16-year-old who had suffered from a hernia since he was a baby. It was a complicated surgery, the doctors said. The boy was given a spinal anesthesia so was conscious through the procedure, and the anesthesiologist read a Bible story to distract him during the surgery.
The third surgery was for a 30-year-old deaf man, Langa, whose hand was bitten by a crocodile three weeks earlier. They walked five hours from their village to the hospital where they received little help until the MMS doctors arrived, but by that time it was too late to save the hand which had turned black and smelled of rotting meat. It had to be amputated. It took the man a day to come to terms with the loss of his hand before he was ready to have the surgery. This was also a complicated surgery requiring tendons to be tied off, blood vessels sealed, and many other details I don’t understand – a three-hour surgery. I stayed for the first part where they literally just broke off the rotting fingers and bones but managed to save the thumb.
We slept that night in a tented camp set up for the MMS team, but had eaten and were in bed by the time the doctors finished around 11 pm. 6:30 AM to 11 PM. They kept these hours for three days in a row.
I asked 46-year-old Dr. Clara, who assisted Dr. Sylvain in the surgeries, how she felt about the hard week which included her sleeping bag getting wet from a rainstorm on the final night and spraining her wrist when she fell off a cart that tipped over on the way to the river on departure day. She responded enthusiastically, “I loved it!” Irene, the 23-year-old anesthesiologist, could barely express herself as she held her hands over her heart and her eyes filled up with tears, while she explained how meaningful it was for her to be helping her desperately poor countrymen and women.