In April 2016, I wrote a blog post for HireNurses.com (http://www.hirenurses.com/tips-resources/2016/04/24/healthcare_in_the_developing_world/ ) Little did I know when the article was published on the HireNurses.com website, how much would change in a short period of time! As my partner Godfried Agbezudor and I listened to the challenges faced by the nurses staffing the clinic, and particularly the patients and residents of the village who are too poor to afford even minimal treatment, we resolved in that moment to do what we could to improve the situation. If the clinic could be expanded in size, it could move up to Level B1, which would allow significantly more healthcare options for patients.
As I write this, I’m still amazed at how much has happened so fast. We had a conversation later that day with the spokesman of the chief of the village (it’s proper etiquette to address the spokesman first, who will carry the message to the chief), Mr. John Mark Kwame Worclachie, about our idea to enlarge the existing clinic to allow for labor and delivery, laboratory, and infirmary on site. He was very receptive to our ideas; interestingly, it was his brother who had started the current clinic some years ago.
After the article was published, one of the HireNurses.com staff emailed me and asked if we would be interested in organizing and leading a medical mission to Ghana. This felt too exciting to be true – Godfried has been a tour operator for 30+ years and speaks all the local languages so is well-equipped to lead mission trips. He was raised in Dogbekope and another nearby village and has a particular passion for humanitarian work in the region. As he said in explanation to Mr. Worclachie, “I’ve been working all my life and now I want to give back to my community.” We were seized by a desire to make these things a reality.
We made two more trips from Accra (the capital city) to the Volta Region to meet with clinic nurses in surrounding villages, to learn more about what their needs are and how medical mission groups in their villages could be of assistance. As one nurse put it, “if you come with American medical professionals, people will come out in droves. So many of our villagers never come to the clinic because they can’t afford it, so they just live with their condition. But with free care? They will come.” An office visit and medication costs less than U.S. $5 but if the patient has the choice between using that $5 to feed the family or getting their medical needs taken care of, they’ll feed their family first.
We learned that the main healthcare needs are malaria diagnosis and treatment, GI tract problems, skin conditions, respiratory infections, STD screening, hypertension, parasites, rheumatism, anemia, and eye infections. We felt that one thing we could do immediately was to purchase medications to be given out for free, so that at least the villagers in Dogbekope would only have to pay for the office visit. My business, Batiks for Life, donated 10% of all our sales to date and we had several private donors as well. From that we were able to buy a large box full of the most-used medicines for the clinic.
Our chance to lead a mission trip on a small scale came together very quickly, when a long-time customer of Batiks for Life, a dental hygienist, wrote to me and said she wanted to give up a trip to Switzerland to a dental conference and come to Ghana instead! Our volunteer, Cathy Elliott, has worked as a dental hygienist for 40 years and also directs a non-profit organization, Dental Care In Your Home, that brings dental care to homebound people in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA. She expressed her desire to treat villagers with a non-invasive silver nitrate 25% solution which immediately stops tooth decay and oral pain, as well as a fluoride varnish to protect the teeth.
This amazing woman arrived in Accra with five suitcases – four of them full of donated dental supplies courtesy of Henry Shein Dental. She herself purchased enough of the silver nitrate to treat at least 600 people and was able to get donations of 600 toothbrushes. Batiks for Life and private donations purchased another 120 toothbrushes and 720 tubes of Colgate.
Godfried and I arranged the dates of the mission with the clinic nurses and the regional medical director, Mr. Joseph Degle, and on a Saturday morning we all arrived at the village ready to get to work. Cathy’s visit was so warmly received by the chief of the village, Torgbui Dogbe Tuakli V., village elders, and Mr. Degle.
We were a little concerned that not many villagers were present to be treated – we found out that this Saturday was a market day and many people would be at the market. Our fears were unfounded though – soon lots of people arrived and sat patiently for most of the day waiting to be treated. One of the clinic nurses kept very good records of who came for treatment and who got treated – at the end of our time in the village, nearly 300 people had been treated and those who had to leave before their turn were seen and treated by the nurses the next day.
There were many heartwarming moments during the two days the treatment was administered but my personal favorite was a tiny girl, maybe six years old, who sat very still waiting her turn. She waited while quite a few adults were seen. Finally, in frustration, she went to Godfried and tugged on his hand. “Are only the adults going to be seen? What about the children?” she asked. We both felt a little guilty that we hadn’t made special arrangements for the kids. This brave little girl had the next spot in line and we assured her that Cathy would see only children the next day, as the nurses would be sufficiently trained to take care of the adults.
Another heartwarming story came after we had returned to Accra. Godfried’s brother had just returned from the village and told us that the dental treatment was the main topic of conversation. Everyone was so thrilled to have had their teeth cared for and especially loved that they were given the disposable dental mirror, a toothbrush, and toothpaste. In fact, we heard that the villagers had decided they would use nothing but Colgate from then on! We were just happy that they took Cathy’s instructions about dental care to heart and were brushing their teeth!
Cathy discovered in the course of looking in lots of mouths that the vast majority of people – children and adults alike – had good, strong teeth with little tooth decay. This indicates that their diet is good, and that they eat very little sugar – good news considering this is one of the poorest areas of Ghana. I couldn’t resist thinking about how my own mouth is full of dental work. These people living in poverty were doing a better job with their teeth than I did in my younger days.
It’s quite common for people in Ghana to never go to a dentist in their entire life. Godfried lives in the big city and had never been seen by a dentist before Cathy. As she mentioned to him, the mineral deposits (tartar) on peoples’ teeth were probably a protective factor and to remove it might actually loosen the teeth. A few of the very elderly people had indeed lost some teeth, but by and large Cathy was happily surprised at how healthy everyone’s teeth were.
Before we left the Volta Region to return to Accra, we met with Dr. Selasie Tamakloe, the only dental surgeon in the area, at Keta Hospital (about an hour’s drive from Dogbekope). He and his small staff were completely fascinated by Cathy’s description of the silver nitrate treatment. He expressed how he would love to be able to do outreach to the villages, but being the only dentist, couldn’t leave his post. As previously noted, very few people come for dental care, so his quite up-to-date treatment room is empty a lot of the time.
Cathy ended her trip with a morning of treating Godfried’s neighbor children and elders in Accra – putting the total treated over 300! The remaining silver nitrate, fluoride, toothbrushes and toothpaste are now back in Dogbekope, where the nurses are continuing Cathy’s work. Cathy is already planning a return trip to Ghana in May, 2017 and is recruiting other dental professionals to come along!
I really cannot express how honored we were to facilitate hundreds of people being treated with this simple, non-invasive treatment. We enjoyed the whole experience immensely and also learned a lot about ways to make future healthcare missions even more successful. To that end, we are currently organizing a nursing mission through the nursing advocacy organization, Show Me Your Stethoscope, which will happen in October 2016. Two additional nursing missions are in the works for April and August 2017. If you’re interested in coming to Ghana to volunteer your healthcare expertise, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org .