Tracy Thomson, Family Physician at the Copeman Healthcare Centre in Calgary, recently went on a medical mission with the Canadian African Community Health Alliance to Ukewere Island, Tanzania, Africa. Along with her three children and 26 other clinicians, including a general surgeon, pharmacists, nurses and other medical doctors, Dr. Thomson spent nearly three weeks providing much-needed care to the rural population of Ukewere Island.
Can you tell us a bit about your trip and the work you were doing?
Yes, we ran a medical caravan. Each day we would load up trucks with medical supplies and drive to a different village on the island. Some villagers were a close 30-minute drive, while others were 1.5 hours away on bumpy, pothole-ridden dirt roads. When we got to a village there would be approximately 500 people waiting in line, many of whom had travelled barefoot overnight to be seen.
We had a dental station, eye station, testing station (for HIV, syphilis, malaria, etc.), medical station, pharmacy and an education station. My kids were part of the logistics team and would help unload the bins, set up tarps to provide protection from rain and sun and begin the process of registering people in the line. We saw approximately 400 patients per day, and I would estimate that 25 per cent of them had life-threatening illnesses that required urgent medical attention.
Our evenings would consist of counting medications to prepare for the next day of work. There was no internet, little electricity and all our meals were cooked on an open fire. We slept on borrowed beds from the hospital and rigged up our own mosquito netting.
What sort of health challenges were the people facing?
The average lifespan on Ukewere Island is 47 years. People there have limited access to clean drinking water, often having to walk up to 10 kilometres roundtrip to a well and carry water on their heads back home in the hot sun. People have no routine access to healthcare and no money for medication, such as antibiotics or antimalaria, if they get sick. There’s also a lack of transportation to get to a hospital and very few resources for trauma patients. We came to learn this the hard way when one of our nurse practitioners was struck by a car while riding her bicycle. I spent 11 hours caring for her in the back of an ambulance before we got her to a hospital, where she spent two weeks in ICU and was lucky to come out alive.
Do you have any takeaways about the experience that you’d like to share?
I have a newfound sense of gratitude. I haven’t stopped looking at the water coming out of the tap that we can drink from and brush our teeth with, without having to walk in the hot sun to a well.
My other takeaway is that, despite these harsh conditions and medical challenges, life on the island is simple, and the people are happy. The children have nothing, but they laughed and played, and the joy was evident everywhere you went. Although the people are poor, they are rich in so many other ways.
My children and I will definitely be returning once they finish their schooling. It was the hardest medicine I have ever done but also the most gratifying.
I’d like to thank all my patients that donated to this cause – a few dollars can help so many people.