YETEBON, Ethiopia (WXOW) Thirteen volunteers signed up to be part of the first ever Global Partner's team in Ethiopia. The team included two surgeons, one physician, six nurses, two anesthesiologists, and two non-medically trained volunteers.
The team hit the ground running heading into the OR on their first full day at Project Mercy. It was there they quickly learned practicing medicine in the third world country is both rewarding and sometimes heartbreaking.
Surgeons train for the unexpected. They hope for the best outcomes, but prepare for the worst. In the United States, that prep includes gathering the best equipment and the best drugs-the best medicine has to offer. In Ethiopia the best is often out of reach.
"It really makes you realize how much we have in the U.S. that we take for granted." Anesthesiologist Iyad Salah had just sedated a two-week-old when the hospital lost power. "That was the scary part, because babies don't have much of a reserve. Their oxygen rate drops very quickly compared to adults. It was a little scary, but our nurse was available and she helped us switch the oxygen. It worked out good."
Every procedure, large or small, had its own challenges. Sometimes the team had to sterilize and re-use equipment that would have been thrown away back in La Crosse. In other cases, they didn't have the equipment they needed.
The biggest challenge of all, not being able to make patients comfortable. Pain medications are not available in rural Ethiopia. When patients awoke from surgery, encouraging words and a tender touch were all the Gundersen team had to offer. "It means something to every person to have that touch and that caring smile. The comforting words someone cares."
The team performed 25 surgeries in just their first week and successfully treated every patient but one. A 30-year-old woman, a mother, came into the OR with an abdominal mass. That mass was cancer. It had already attached to her internal organs. Back in La Crosse, she would have chemo and radiation. Or had she decided not to be treated, they could have managed her pain. Neither is an option here in Ethiopia. Instead the team closed her up and sent her home where she will die a painful death.
"You help those who you can. For those you can't help, you can always help by holding their hand. It's really hard, but it's what we do."
Two days later, the Gundersen team brought new life into the world. A baby boy delivered by C-section. "Just to see this little one and know that life goes on. Life goes on. We helped him have a better start." A timely reminder that for every moment of desperationn there are equal moments of joy.