Caring for Cameroon

1/19/2018  By HealthNews

January 19, 2018 

The U.S.-Cameroon team takes a brief break for photos. From KVH: Stacey Botten, Eric Davis, Ginger Longo, Erin Marshall, Katie McKeown, Geoff Scherer, and John Yoder.

This past December, in the midst of holiday distractions, a group of local volunteers flew to Africa to open a rural medical clinic. For some, it wasn't their first time working with the Bawa Health Initiative (BHI).

According to BHI, Bawa rests "between the rainforest and upland savannah." Around 3,000 people live in this area of Cameroon's West Province; over 400 live in the village of Bawa. BHI began its work there a little over 10 years ago, focused on basic necessities such as clean drinking water, latrines, GI parasite reduction, and medical treatment which included funding the area's first medical facility, the Sophine Awounke Health Center.

When the clinic building process began in 2014, BHI brought on Eric Davis, an RN at KVH, to serve as medical advisor. Recommended as someone who was "experienced in flow, function, and staffing," BHI knew Davis' experience would be key in preparing for a successful opening.

Last month, with the clinic facility ready to open, U.S. physicians, APCs, nurses, EMTs, and patient care technicians made the 16,000 mile round trip to bring medical supplies and train area medical professionals who would spend their lives caring for fellow villagers.

Stacey Botten, RN and KVH Family Birth Place Director, was among those who made the trip. For Botten, it was the realization of a long-time dream. "I've worked in a hospital my entire career," she says. "I've always wanted an opportunity to use my RN training in a non-traditional, humanitarian way. Bawa was the perfect blend of working with an amazing team and giving back."

The U.S. team hit the ground running. "We were doing H&Ps (history and physical exams) on all the locals," says Davis, who notes that up to this point the villagers had practiced "gypsy medicine," keeping their own medical records as they traveled from place to place for care. The new clinic is now a central location for medical records.

The Bawa influence: Taking time for what matters. 

During the clinic's opening weeks, the team averaged about 100 patients a day, with their busiest day at 240. The care provided during this time was free. (Moving forward, there will be a small fee charged for services - equivalent to 1 USD, to sustain a small core of paid local staff.) "There was quite a bit of red tape involved on the Cameroon side," admitted Davis. "We had minimal supplies for the first couple weeks, before the second group brought more with them." The team's initial supply shipment, which was much larger, finally became available during their last week in Bawa.

Despite the long hours and supply issues, the team thoroughly enjoyed their work and their time in Bawa. "I missed my family, but I could easily live there," says Davis, noting the simple if not easy lifestyle - free of distractions like cell phones, to name just one modern convenience we can't seem to do without. Villagers are mainly farmers, their days involved with planting, tending, harvesting, transporting and selling crops - sometimes carrying large, heavy baskets on their heads and backs for miles at a time.

The people of the village were grateful for the new clinic and medical care. "We got a 98% positive response," says Davis. The other 2 percent? "They were healthy, so we didn't give them anything," he explains. That made the healthy villagers upset. So the medical team made some quick adjustments.

"We gave the healthy ones water bottles, with the directions to drink one bottle a day, two for children. "For so long, they'd been unable to safely drink the water, so they weren't used to staying hydrated even now that the water had been cleared up." In addition to water bottles, healthy patients were "prescribed" calesthenics to help cope with the back and joint pain that comes with the hard physical labor of their farming culture.

Among the majority who actually needed medical treatment, there were issues with anemia. Despite BHI's efforts to provide animals for meat, villagers would simply sell the animals to help pay for their children's schooling.

“I learned much more from the villagers than I could ever teach them.” – Stacey Botten

Every patient encounter was memorable. Davis recalls two in particular: a diabetic man who, as soon as the clinic made the diagnosis, was sent to a hospital for immediate care. Doctors there told his family he would have died within days if not treated. Another patient, a young boy, presented with swollen knees and other symptoms of sickle cell anemia. After a week's treatment and education, the boy left the clinic feeling far better than he had in a long time.

Last year, Davis took on an additional role with BHI as he was invited onto their board of commissioners. Most of them live in Connecticut, so Davis and fellow member Blaise Dondji, a professor of Biology at CWU, meet monthly with them via Skype.

BHI encourages anyone who is interested in their work to get involved. They accept online donations, and local events raise funds throughout the year, including an annual dinner and sports camps in the spring and summer. As always, those who are able to donate their patient care skills are also welcome. "We took 18 people this year, from Lacey, and from KVH and Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue," says Davis. "We went as unpaid volunteers." 

While the team plans to return for a formal opening ceremony with the government and U.S. embassy at the end of 2018, there are plans for the summer to bring optical and dental services.

Clearly, the people of Bawa are in good hands.

"It's pure medical care," says Davis. "These are good, hard-working people who haven't had reliable access to the care they need. They appreciate everything we do for them, and serving them is a privilege and a pleasure."

Managed by Kittitas Valley Healthcare, HealthNews does not provide medical advice. For medical advice, please see your healthcare provider.