First Clinic: George Compound
After two and a half days of travel, the 2019 OMNI Medical Mission Team sends you grateful greetings and love from our comfortable base in Ndola, Zambia! I began this writing to you at 6:30 a.m. on Monday, before the team gathered in half an hour for our first breakfast together. We are 18 doctors, nurses, students from Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, a lawyer, a spiritual advisor, an estates advisor, teachers, artists, and in no time we are already an amazingly coherent and cheerful team.
Yesterday’s 2-hour flight from a chilly Johannesburg morning landed us on the small Ndola tarmac where, even under the Zambian winter sun, we immediately remembered needing our field hats and sunscreen. We headed to nearby Kuku Royal Lodge with all our luggage (nothing astray) and were met by James, the owner, whose first words were “welcome home!” James really cares for the team, and his staff are excellent cooks, launderers, and cleaners for us, wonderful, helpful people who know what kind of work we are doing and pray for us every night.
For our first-time travelers here, everything is new: the bird songs, the frangipani and bougainvillea in bloom, the chipper advertising on giant billboards, the reddish toads, the strange and beautiful trees. The degree of need we will be seeing in our patients is also going to be new to our first-time team members.
One of the unforgettable experiences of every OMNI trip is the first bus ride from our lodge to nearby OMNI Village. By 8:15 a.m., our packed van turned right off of the Copperbelt Region’s one paved road onto a hard mango-bright dirt road (imagine orange mud soup in the rainy season, not now). We steered slowly around the ruts, passed the termite mounds from which sturdy bricks are cut, and by the ubiquitous mango trees (not now in season). Slowly, drifts of sweet song reached our open windows, and finally, we were there—at the entry to our OMNI campus—where all the children were lined up outside, singing their hearts out to welcome us.
Hearing all the children sing with such passion and sincerity recalls an old Proverb from India: God breaks your heart—again, and again, and again—until, at last, it remains open. The sweet chorus of these 332 young students’ song, a song almost certainly impossible without the education, food, and medicine of OMNI, always amazes, and every year moves me to tears.
As we meet, every OMNI staff member curtsies to each curtsying child. They have been waiting for us outside. In this line we enact a deliberate intimacy, meeting and clasping hands with each individual, eye to eye, smile to smile, and asking each one, “Moolishani?” How are you?, and hearing each answer, “Bweeno” I am well! Although currently three students are down with the fever and chills of malaria, they are taking coartem, medicine which will save their lives. In 3 or 4 days, these children will be back in class.
After a formal greeting ceremony, and OMNI’s leader Karen Throckmorton speaking so lovingly to all the assembled students and staff, we gathered outside once again, this time very quietly, while we established a Skype visit with our friends in the congregation of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, back in the United States. And our connection worked! The OMNI children sang beautifully again, this time a live performance transmitted across the ocean. Where there is a will, or a service organization like ours, there is a way.
Our first field clinic, Monday, was today in George Compound. This day we served the area from which most of our orphans walk to attend our OMNI School (where they are served their only meal of the day, warm and nutritious, cooked on campus), including their neighbors, anyone in the area who needs help. School is not in session during our medical clinic week so that our OMNI teachers can serve as wonderful translators for our patients and us. Without their help, we could not function.
First-time with us, Doctor Margaret, immunologist and allergist, came to sit with me to have her “lunch”—a power bar—which we eat as privately as we can. (Veteran Pharmacy stalwart Chriss Ross reminded us today as she distributed our power bars that our patients may not eat lunch today, or any meal at all. Thus, if we eat, we eat discreetly.)
Margaret looked as strong and beautiful as the Statue of Liberty, sitting across from me on the bench crowded with Wound Care’s bags. “My first patient of the day...she is partly paralyzed because her roof collapsed on her more than a year ago. She has a spinal injury; she is incontinent; one hand has contracted; she is poor; when her small son is not there to lift or drag her into a seated position, she must lie where she is. I checked her lungs. They don’t make a sound in the stethoscope. She is barely taking in air. She...” and the conclusion is not good. But Margaret’s gentle, bright intelligence, firm compassion, and hopeful advice bathed this patient.
And the patient did smile, I told Margaret, when, over in Wound Care, we gave her rice, salt, a huge new blanket, soap, washcloths, a toothbrush and toothpaste. And she REALLY smiled when Nurse Gil looked at her predicament with the determined compassion for which she is famous, and with scissors and ingenuity turned a donated surgical sheet into an approximated waterproof undergarment to be worn over the new panties Gil also gave her, along with a torso brace which will incline her to keep better posture, improving her breathing at least a little.
Emily and Riley, first-time team members, made Roanoke College very proud today. They worked the Lab Station, along with OMNI’s amazing Civics teacher, Eunice Kasongo. These young people did their first ever blood draws and tests for HIV and malaria. They had to prick the fingers of old men and terrified babies. They had to direct and test urine samples. They had to prepare themselves to read devastating results. Thank God, today there was no bad news from the exhausted team at Wound Care. Brady, the third Roanoke College student, stuck with Gil and OMNI’s Deputy Head teacher Kelvin Kaputula and me, organizing the dozen Wound Care cases and crucially helping us deliver aid.
First-timer Lisa, another North Carolinian, a financial advisor back home, shepherded dozens and dozens of patients from triage to the doctors or Clinics Pharmacy or Lab or to Wound Care all day. “I tried to learn a few words in Bemba, just to make it nicer for them. They are so quiet in their pain...Only after the entire day did I remember my Power Bar. I wasn’t hungry. Instead I realized I wasn’t feeling exactly right. Probably I’m thirsty and hungry, and maybe tired, but it doesn’t feel like hungry and thirsty. It just feels off, not right. That’s probably how so many of our patients here feel many days.”
Dr. Doug Ross has been extracting teeth all day, into the darkness, with the help of nurse-in-training Gillian Muma Chambesi. I took one photo I love in the dentistry room, of a little girl’s bare socks, as she tightened her feet against one another in anticipation of her tooth being pulled.
First-timer Linda Hinson, a Middle School art teacher back in Virginia, worked all day under a tent awning we set up outside—our Pharmacy—with veterans Chriss, Sunni, and some rotating helpers including newcomers April from Charlottesville and Addy from Atlanta, dispensing Tylenol, Ibuprofen, allergy meds, cough drops, vitamins, anti-fungals, scabies meds, and the eye drops collected by the Blacksburg Middle School community. Pharmacy is one of the most difficult stations, and one of the busiest. These workers patiently called the names (Zambian names, often unfamiliar to our ears) of 100% of our patients all day, well over 400. They explained dosages, and handed the well-marked personalized meds packages to each person only when it was clear that these directions had been conveyed thoroughly and with compassion and kindness. Linda speaks for all of Pharmacy when she commented, “I was non-stop today. I learned so much. You have to be organized, and you have to be consistent in where you place things.”!l Then Linda adds: “And Brady and I, in one day, we have become the world’s BEST pill cutters.”
Karen and Dresden worked Triage, the place that evaluates each patient and their acuity and sends them to doctors or wound care or pharmacy or all of the above. They saw too many swollen lips, swollen throats, discharge, and areas of patchy skin. They also saw many of the OMNI kids with only a cough, a sneeze, or a headache, well children from under the loving umbrella of our school.
Closing the clinic at 8 p.m., Dr. Doug, after extracting 45 teeth, sometimes 3 or 4 from someone too fond of sweets and sugarcane, announced that the greatest invention of the day was putting a tea bag in his water bottle.
“Hey Doug,” I asked, “do you think you got some caffeine from that water? “Darn right! Are you kidding? I would have been fried at 2 this afternoon! I’m still buzzing!”
Dr. Glenn and the other docs are all still working in this darkness. Patients, Dr. Margaret told me later, were arriving in twos and threes long after dark. Glenn’s daughter Addy has, like all our young people, rotated flexibly through being a doctor’s assistant, to serving in intake, pharmacy, lab, and wound care. As I finish writing, our fingertips and noses are growing chilled. Many hands are collapsing the tents and loading our duffels and plastic trunks full of tomorrow’s medicine. Our guards and security are watching over us now in the total darkness. And our pastor H2 (Henry Maicki II) is everywhere, comforting, undoing doubt, giving spiritual sustenance. He makes us all feel sure again. He makes us laugh hard, and he causes us to love one another better.
At dinner, late tonight, we will hear a hundred difficult and beautiful stories. We will see each other clearly as the human beings we are, gathered to do our best work under the Southern Cross shining above the Zambian night.
This account is not complete. These are only my quick notes from stolen moments in the trenches. Yet I sincerely hope for those of you following us that with these words you can better see a glimpse of what a 12-hour clinic with OMNI means.
I will end with the story of Patricia. When she was 5, she didn’t grasp her bowl of porridge well, or perhaps the bowl was too hot to handle, or maybe she was being chased by a sibling. She remembers the night, but thank God not the pain. The porridge clung to her young skin, leaving severe disfiguring burns on her face and neck and chest. Her skin now has extremely contracted scars which badly limit her facial movement and impact her emotional certainty.
But after I washed Patricia and massaged her with Vaseline, and put two lovely hand-made bracelets on her wrist made by Lilyann and Kennedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, Patricia was willing the confirm: “I am studying in the 4th grade. I am strong in maths. I like to eat all fruits. And yes, you heard me correctly, my favorite color,” she said, smiling at her new bracelets, “is blue.”