Deep within the Maasai Mara of southwestern Kenya, an unusual patient entered the doctor’s office.
Red Deer physician Ray Comeau, with 30 years of medical experience, sat behind the desk.
The patient in his mid-30s explained through a Maa-speaking interpreter, the primary language of the Maasai people, that he had taken his cows out to pasture at night when a leopard attacked and bit his head. After two years, he still had irritation and pain in his right eye. Comeau saw the eye was infected, pus oozing out when he pressed down on the inner corner of the eye.
“We think that the tooth of the leopard had become embedded in the bone,” said an astounded Comeau.
The man was prescribed antibiotics, sent for an X-ray more than two hours away by vehicle, and referred for a CT scan in a large centre.
Throughout this two-week journey for Central-Alberta based A Better World, Comeau and his wife Deryl, a registered nurse, have led a voluntary medical team of 14 doctors, nurses and helpers through some of the poorest areas of Kenya.
Bowel problems have been the most common ailments treated by this crew, followed by respiratory. As Comeau says, these are typical ailments associated with poverty.
The majority of Kenyans have no access to clean treated water, instead consuming pools of water from wherever they can find them. They live in cramped quarters where charcoal fumes and smoke permeate the air. Comeau would learn that half of all children of the Maasai culture — a people renowned for their nomadic pastoralist ways and elaborate upper body adornment — will die before they reach five years old.
The three most common killers of these children are malaria, diarrhea and pneumonia.
During this short rainy season, the team saw fewer Kenyans with malaria, a parasitic disease transmitted by mosquitoes.
At the Talek Health Centre where Maasai people are treated, A Better World volunteers diagnosed brucellosis, a bacterial infection caused from drinking cow blood and/or eating raw beef and goat meat.
Comeau said those particular patients suffer nighttime fever, weight loss, severe muscle aches and pains, plus headaches.
The medical team came prepared. They travelled with 14 hockey bags stuffed with donated supplies, including vitamins, medicine and surgical equipment.
“They had to be prepared for day-to-day issues, anything from boils to stomach pains,” said Eric Rajah, co-founder of A Better World. “This is the biggest medical team of multiple disciplines.”
Their commitment to treat Kenya’s poor has come with challenges. Several volunteers described the heartbreak of turning people away at the end of a long day, well aware they had walked several kms.
Communication problems were also significant. Even with the use of interpreters, the patients didn’t always convey their conditions well. Many patients were diagnosed with common ailments — such as arthritis and back problems — that could be easily treated.
Deryl Comeau said one of the toughest parts of this trip was meeting with dozens of children who live at the Ndanai Small Home for the Physically Challenged because, as she explained, these children are dealing with a host of issues, including a lack of sanitation facilities.
Toilets are just holes in the ground — not easy for anyone, let alone being in a wheelchair.
“What bothers me the most is how some of these conditions are preventable,” said Deryl.
Cases of spina bifida, a birth deformity of the spine, is declining in Canada because women are getting enough folic acid pre-natally. Here, they don’t so the incidence is high.
“It’s a huge challenge for them to survive because there isn’t a social net to take care of them,” said Deryl, who holds a master’s degree in nursing.
Comeau said A Better World worked with a community physiotherapist on compiling a list of essentials, including crutches and splints, which will be supported through A Better World funds. A Better World is paying for a physiotherapist to visit the Home once a week.
Fortunately, the Canadian doctors, nurses and helpers work alongside Kenyan health professionals. As director of the Talek Health Centre, nurse practitioner Juma Sampuerrap is used to seeing lion bites, injuries caused from elephant attacks and tropical diseases.
His medical team of 12 will see an average of 20 to 50 patients a day inside the centre sponsored by Peter and Kathy Lacey of Red Deer, Dr. Mandy and Daryl Hyde, Ruth Brucks and numerous other contributors.
The Laceys wanted to step in and help after hearing about the healthcare needs in the region, and they knew that there was strong management in place.
Since the health care centre was opened several years ago, the entire region of 100,000 inhabitants has seen its benefits.
Previously the smallest clinic, it’s now the largest among eight operated through CMF (Community Health Partners).
John Sankok, director of CHF, said the larger clinic offers so many services that the small clinic couldn’t provide. He hopes that one day A Better World will support a small theatre for cataract removals.
“The biggest challenge (across the region) is we need more space,” Sankok said.
The Talek Health Centre holds a dozen beds for day treatment, plus a pharmacy, several exam rooms and laboratory. Alex Leparan, a Volunteer Counselling and Testing counsellor, and a colleague test for HIV/AID using kits provided free by the Kenyan government. They’re busy with 158 people in the treatment and support program, which includes a nutritional supplement.
“At least five women deliver their babies here a month,” added Leparan. “The nearest delivery centre was in Narok district (a number of kilometres away). This (Talek Health Centre) has reduced a lot of the referral clients.”
The Comeaus, who began co-ordinating medical teams for A Better World a couple of years ago, hope to return to Kenya in January. The couple has volunteered with Medical Mercy Canada, which has partnered with A Better World towards constructing a hospital on the India-Myanmar border. A Better World has also pledged to equip and furnish the hospital.
By the time this 20th anniversary trip is over, the medical volunteers will have seen an estimated 1,100 patients at 15 clinics. Rajah said their success couldn’t have been realized without local people working day in and day out in such harsh conditions.
During an evening debriefing, more than 40 volunteers applauded Sampuerrap and Sankok for their improvements in the Maasai region.
Like many other community leaders before them, these Kenyans showed humbleness, instead passing the praise on to their Canadian partners.