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My First Medical Mission Trip to Kenya

Ever since I became a nurse I’ve wanted to do a medical mission. In fact, it was one of the reasons I went into the medical field. I wanted to save the world but instead, I ended up in LA working at UCLA. Go figure! Had anyone told me I would have to wait 30 years to achieve my dream, I wouldn’t have believed it, but that’s exactly what happened. With kids out of the way, established career, and supportive husband, I signed up for my very first mission.

Millicent, our fearless leader.

I found out about MMK through the UCLA employee newspaper. Millicent Mucheru is the matriarch and MMK’s founder. A beautiful Kenyan woman with an engaging smile and and obvious kindness. This is a young organization started and run by her. I liked her immediately. And just like most missions, she started MMK for a reason. The loss of a niece, and because of anger and grief, MMK was born. “Basic health care is a right, not a privilege” is their logo; I knew I needed to go.

The day couldn’t come soon enough. I woke up that morning, did my last minute checks and headed to the airport with 2 suitcases. A small one with my clothes and a very large one with 50 lbs. of medications. This was the same for everyone involved. We all met at LAX airport ready for the adventure. Well, all except Zoe who had lost her passport and was trying to make it back to the airport from San Diego in rush hour. Sadly she missed the flight but flew out the next day. We slowly started getting to know one another as we went through check in and security. We’re a diverse group of UCLA nurses and Vanessa from UC San Diego, all of us coming from different specialties and backgrounds; but all enthusiastic and friendly.

Documentation of our mission started immediately at the airport with photos. Even though everyone brought their cameras, Zoe (when she arrived the next day) and Agnes were the most diligent and did an amazing job of documenting the mission. I must say their pictures of me, for the most part, were flattering – 20 pounds lighter and 20 years younger…. They managed to avoid my greatest “ass-et”, with the exception of the one where I’m bending over giving a little girl a biscuit. I swear they used a wide angled lens. In the end I think they had close to 2000 shots between them – a memorable picture perfect history of the mission.

(Kevin, Vanessa, Megan, Zoe & Traci)

Zoe has a unique personality. She is so endearing, she entertains without knowing, funnier than she thinks. She’s very smart and loves talking. Vanessa, her friend, is totally opposite to Zoe, quiet, which is a good thing considering. I wouldn’t say she’s shy, just a woman of few words and she doesn’t waste them. Agnes is a truly good person. Always in a good mood. She’s hard working, and tough. She loves the elderly so she works in geriatrics. I liked her even though she played country music. On the airplane I sat between Megan and Kevin in the middle row. Since I’m a terrible traveler because I fidget, I thought we could pass the first 12 hours of the trip getting to know each other. Obviously, they had other plans. How they slept at all was beyond me. Megan could twist herself like a pretzel by crossing her legs in the yoga position, place them on top of the food tray, and THEN place her head on her lap???……..huh?? I wish I’d thought of taking a picture. (Not a good argument for more legroom.)

As for Kevin, he must have a rubberneck because it bent in every direction, wobbled up and down with all the turbulence but he still never woke up. I sat between them in misery, awake, jealous, fidgety but what great travel companions they made (when they were awake). I would repeat 20 hrs. bored in the middle seat with them anytime. Finally Nairobi and a shower! After 24 hours, we packed our bags, drugs, and hoped into a van for a 4-5 hr. drive. The ride over the dirt roads were a little challenging, 2 hours of them on a bumpy road. I was surprised I didn’t get carsick but the scenery was amazing. This is when Kevin’s skills came in handy, sleeping all the way, head bopping up and down. Bastard! He made me so jealous. I was so excited when we got off the paved road and out of the towns. It was beautiful. Witnessing the sunset in the wild was amazing. I mean, you just have to experience it to know what am talking about. Nothing like the African sunset beneath the clouds. As the sun set there was only blackness (total darkness), no street lights, no traffic lights, just the stars and the van headlights. Yeah, they don’t call Africa the Dark Continent for nothing. Our first place of stay was an unfinished resort (Lewasho lodge) deep in Maasai country, at Kimanjo. To say this resort was breathtaking is a great under-statement. No electricity, no running water, no doors to our rooms or bathrooms and I’d stay there again in a second. The shower had no roof so you were bathing from a large bucket of warm water delivered by the Maasai warriors. I’d step in and bath, throwing water on myself looking at the stars. Priceless!!! It was like magic. My roommate was Tracy, a lovely girl with a wonderful temperament, not easily inconvenienced, which is a good thing because I’m not the tidiest of people. She’s very organized which is why she was a good match for the pharmacy. She is quiet, laughs easily, especially at my jokes. A perfect roommate.

We arrived after dark so it was difficult to see anything at all other than the huts and the dining area. I followed Kevin to the dining room because he had a headlight mounted on his forehead that shed light in the darkness. If it weren’t for him, I’d still be wandering the grounds and might have ended up with the elephants or the wolves that romped the grounds at night. (note to self…… Next trip, head light), check. One doesn’t expect much when volunteering but I had some of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life. Those who know me know I’m a bit of a food snob and an accomplished cook myself, but this was a..aamazing. The chef confided that he had been Bill Gates personal chef for 5 weeks while Mr. Gates was in Kenya setting up various philanthropic programs. Funnily enough, I don’t think he knew who Bill Gates “really was” but he only remembered him for his huge tip! I enjoyed such delicious meals in Kenya that I bought a cookbook before I left the country. Although some of the recipes I tried were good, nothing came close to the food at the resort. My job title during this trip was that of a drug dealer or mama Xanax. I let it be known that I had a large supply of Xanax for those who needed help sleeping. Actually, I promoted many of its benefits, nervous? Xanax, Carsick? Xanax. The volunteers would line up at the end of the night at my hut with their hands out. It felt so great to be needed, even if it is for my drugs…..sigh……Can you believe Kevin wanted Xanax to help him sleep? I decided I’d put him on rations so I wouldn’t get so jealous of his sleeping abilities. First clinic day. I wake up, put on my MMK t-shirt, polish my stethoscope and head for breakfast. Amazing fruit. You’ve never had a banana until you’ve had one in Kenya. We jump into our vans, 20 minutes down a dirt road, and we’re at the clinic. I meet Dr. Alfred Saigero, a truly selfless person and care giver. All he wants to do is serve his community and improve their lives by giving basic care, which is difficult in Kenya on a $2000 every 3 months for supplies and medication. He asks nothing for himself. And I’m not sure he actually gets anything for himself but he never complains.

Our second MD is Dr Martha Ingles….. AKA Mother….from Canada. This is her 2nd time volunteering with MMK. Her intelligence is impressive, and not because she is a doctor, but she’s easy to talk to, and I enjoyed listening to her. She’s practical, unassuming, and loves being a doctor. Greg, her husband was in charge of administrative duties and documenting all the patients seen at the clinic. At times we saw over 200 patients in 8 hours.

On our first day, a mother appeared with her baby wrapped in her arms. The baby was happy, not crying. I asked what was wrong through our translator, at which point the mother exposes the baby’s back and buttocks…. There was no skin on these areas, and he had blisters on his back. He had 2nd degree burns from boiling water, and he wasn’t even crying! Scratchy material against raw exposed skin and he wasn’t crying. I was shocked. This turned out to be the norm with the Kenyan children; regardless of the injury, they rarely cried and if they did, then you’d really worry!

The next day at the clinic, it was packed. Non-stop patients. A dentist, 2 doctors, and an AIDS counselor all worked along with us. From what I remember over 100 teeth were pulled that day and for the first time ever, no newly diagnosed AIDS cases. I guess Bill Gates program on preventing AIDS through education and condoms is working. I had the honor of meeting young Maasai warriors commonly known as Maasai Morans who came to the clinic to be examined. Through a translator I was able to ask questions. It turns out they had been out in the jungle for 7 months. These 4 boys were no older than 15. Tradition demands that they must go out on their own hunt and kill a lion with nothing more than a knife and a spear. Once they do that, they can come home get circumcised and only then can they get married and receive a hut. I took pictures of them in full warrior regalia. They were magnificent.

That day, in our honor, the locals killed a goat for us as a show of appreciation. The head was prominently placed on the tree as the carcass was taken apart and cooked. I was served the liver, (very tasty I might add) and a small piece of goat’s meat. I tried really hard to show my appreciation but I kept looking at the head of the goat staring at me from the tree. He made me feel guilty. If I had to kill for my food, I’d be a vegetarian.

Later that day, we return to our huts exhausted, wash up and head for the dining area. This is our last supper in this amazing place. One of the Maasai warriors had a hand made instrument he’d play at the fire pit. It sounded like a badly tuned guitar but amazing music to experience. The next day we packed and headed north to Wamba, another Maasai community of the Samburu tribe. Another 6 hour drive, 3 hours over dirt roads. We arrive at an isolated impoverished village, much different from where we came. Even though I wouldn’t call Maasai country rich, the poverty in this area was more evident, seen in the buildings and in the faces of the locals. Our accommodations this time are dorm style. A delightful woman who will be our host for the next 2 days meets us. She smiles easily, makes sure we have everything we need and even did our laundry. During our stay we celebrate a birthday, Lexy’s. Our host bakes a cake for her; we had to sing Happy Birthday 3 times after our cameraman fails to capture the scene. Each time, the cake went back to the kitchen, our host comes out with the candles lit, we sing Happy Birthday, Lexy puts on her surprise face… (what an actress!) and blows out the candles, again!!! Like Martha, it is Lexy’s 2nd time joining the mission. She is smart, mature way beyond her years, and loves life. She’ll never pass up an opportunity to experience something new. One day Lexy announced she wanted to milk a goat, so Alfred took us back to his farm where Lexy not only got to milk a goat, but also got to try goats’ milk. I wasn’t that curious, besides I wanted it chilled. ;). We also got to experience bloodletting from a cow. According to Alfred this is the Maasai’s major source of protein and iron but I think I would rather be anemic. And what do you know, Lexy tried the blood too.

This clinic experience was far different from the last. In this area I witnessed cases of spousal abuse. One woman in particular had been waiting in line for an hour scared to approach me but finally through a local who spoke English, she stepped forward. She was pregnant, was miscarrying having been beaten by her husband. Her blood pressure was very low and her heart rate very fast. She had lost a lot of blood. She was taken to the hospital but was terrified her husband would beat her to death if she didn’t go home. Even after Millicent told her that her life was in danger, she still wanted to go home. She was worried about her three small children alone at home but even more worried of what her husband will do to her when he discovered she was not home. The only way she’d stay was by Millicent promising to feed her children, and so it was done through her neighbors and co-wives.

It is not unusual for men to have more than one wife. As their wives age, the men choose younger wives and begin having children with them. One woman was the 3rd or 4th wife of an elderly man. He was at least 70, she was probably 18. She had scars on her back from beatings. When approached about this behavior, he just laughed at us and paid no attention. What becomes evident is, no matter what we do to help medically, we cannot change a culture, or the abuse of women. Through my translator I was able to witness the degree of abuse and the attitudes toward women. At times it was very difficult. Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD’s), were rampant because of the amount of sexual assault and the sharing of women that goes on between the men. This area had a lot of Samburu Moran warriors who appeared to be much more abusive towards women than the Maasai Morans and had this sense of entitlement and pride. When the Morans appeared at the clinic for treatment which was mostly from STD’s, they would jump to the front of the line and no one would confront them. Our male nurse, James, was the only one able to make the Morans move to the back of the line. And the only reason they complied is because they dismissed him as a non-informed mzungu.

There was a funny moment when I took a gentleman’s blood pressure, which turned out to be very high. When I gave him the results, he didn’t believe me so I took it again on the other arm. This arm had a slightly higher reading. At this point he is annoyed with me, tells the translator I don’t know how to take a blood pressure and I don’t know what I’m doing. So I tell him no matter what he thinks about my intelligence, he still has high B/P. We are laughing all through this, he consents for someone else to take his B/P and of course there is no change. So Milli doesn’t know how to take a B/P either. He goes to see Alfred, burst out laughing as soon as he sees me, refused to show me his prescription but heads to the pharmacy leaving me laughing.

As word spread we were in town, groups of children would wait outside the accommodation for us. Megan, Zoe and Vanessa would walk to the clinic each morning, the children holding their hands as they walked. For those of us who took the van, the children would run up and shout out Ciao! Ciao! as we passed by. Apparently, prior to our visit, there had been a group of Italian researchers, hence the “Ciao”. No matter how much I tried to teach them “hi”, they always reverted back to Ciao. Maybe when the Italians come back they’ll surprise them with “hi!” I began bringing biscuits to the clinic. I would hand them out to the children in line. I began taking pictures of the children so I could show them their images. To see them giggle as they saw their faces was adorable and it got me thinking. Imagine not being able to see your face every day. As vain as I am, I would fall apart. What if a cute Maasai warrior came up to me at the clinic and my hair wasn’t right? I’d die! We take so much for granted. Vanessa started making glove balloons for the children to play with. One child started rubbing my foot with her index finger. I jumped 20 feet thinking it was a lizard. My translator told me she was scratching my foot to see if I was painted!

I must say I totally fell in love with the children of Kenya. Beautiful innocence, always smiling, caring for one another. When I’d give out a biscuit, if they had 4 siblings, it would be cut into quarters without a thought. These kids are brought up with a sense of community and family responsibilities. A 4 year old will be watching and nursing her two younger siblings, feeding them and carrying them and all…. At one of the clinics my translator ended up being a 12-year-old boy called Clement. He was scary smart. He spoke English with a fluency one would not expect from school alone yet he was fluent, even making jokes. I started handing him the questionnaire since he was asking the questions. Alfred searched for the mother to tell her how smart Clement was. Clement wants to be a doctor and help his village. Here is another Dr Alfred in the making.

We leave Wamba and head for Samburu and to our safari experience. Finally some R&R. We stay at a beautiful resort for a much needed break. The resort had a pool so we took advantage on our last day. I didn’t have my bathing suit but I refused to be left out and cut up my scrubs. Besides, it was probably best I didn’t subject the crew to my body. We had a few upset stomachs as it was. Alfred decided to come in and try swimming. He had been taking lessons from the volunteers since the year before. Didn’t do too badly. Both Megan and Lexy took the role of Alfred’s swimming instructors. He did really well for someone learning how to swim at his age. Going to this trip gave me faith in humanity, but mostly in our youth. There was not one person in our group who won’t make an impact in life, be it in their immediate circle or farther reaching out, it doesn’t matter. I had a friend tell me out of school he wanted to slap the world in the face. Have the world wake up and take notice. I saw this quality in the nurses and doctors that I travelled with. The next generation wants to give and improve. The attitude has switched from a selfishness, to change.

I don’t fool myself by saying we made a huge difference in their lives by being in each village for 2 days but maybe showing we care is huge. I hope treating and listening to some of the battered women, showing they are worth our attention makes a small dent? Otherwise, where do they go? Would that woman have bled to death had we not been there? Sad but this happens every day.

As our trip came to an end, I had a chance to reflect on everything I had experienced. It’s not that it was my first time witnessing poverty but maybe I took away a different experience perhaps because am older. When I was younger it was an adventure, now it was different. At 24 I was living my life, now I want to experience it. I was able to sit back and observe, and absorb. Maybe waiting 30 years gave me an advantage. I don’t know. All I know is I can’t wait for the next trip, to go back to Kenya again. Maybe I will be lucky enough to go.

Written by Monette Gomez, 2014 volunteer RN

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