Friday, October 04, 2013

My Weird Privileged Life

I’ve been out of the blog loop for about a week now because my life has sort of taken on a life of its own. Does that make sense? Probably not.

Anyways, I won’t go into details out of respect for my colleague, but on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning I boarded a medical evacuation plane run by Flying Doctors and flew to Kenya accompanying a sick missioner to better medical care in our neighboring country. So here I am, sitting in a hospital room in Nairobi, which feels like another world from Tanzania. It’s a little surreal, to say the least.

AMREF-Flying Doctors sitting in airport in Mwanza 

But let’s back up just a little first. A colleague of mine got sick on Tuesday. I’m the Human Resources representative for our region of MKLM, plus our Regional Coordinator is out of the country right now so I was called to come check on the patient. We took her to the hospital and they diagnosed her with malaria. But there were some complications so they admitted her.

Now, Tanzanian medical care isn’t the best, let’s be honest. There IS medical care but the standard isn’t up to what we Westerners expect and their facilities and equipment aren’t always state-of-the art. They can handle non-emergent cases, but whenever things get a little tricky, we want to treat on the side of caution and get more expertise in the closest location possible, hence Nairobi. So when things weren’t improving with my colleague and we could see she needed more monitoring, I started advocating for medical evacuation*.

When we got to the airport, it was the middle of the night/wee hours of the morning so the airport wasn’t technically open yet. But by the time the plane arrived, I got through immigration and my colleague got settled into the plane, a small crew had arrived and they were getting ready for the day. I had to stand on the runway for about 20 minutes while everything was settled inside the tiny plane and, as anything involving Westerners, we were kind of a spectacle. So as I stood on the runway, there were about 5 Tanzanian male airport employees standing around watching what was happening.
“It’s malaria,” one guy said.
 “Why is this necessary if it is only malaria?” another guy asked. 
“You know the Westerners are afraid of malaria,” a third chimed in.
“The weather and environment is different so they get really sick.”
“Still, why does she need to go to Nairobi for malaria? We can treat that here.”

The conversation went on and on like this. The insinuation that it was a waste and that we were overreacting really made me miffed. "What do you know!?" I thought. "You're not a doctor! Who are you to judge us." Of course, I didn't say any of this. I just stood there stewing in my juices, feeling embarrassed and frustrated at, yet again, not being understood by Tanzanians, the story of our lives here.

And then I got to thinking more about it. About how odd it must look. Perhaps at this point I need to add a little bit of perspective because when people outside of Africa hear "malaria" they think "death." Yes, malaria kills millions of people a year in Africa. It's not something to take lightly, but at the same time, if treated quickly and with proper medicine, most cases can be cured relatively quickly and easily. Plus, EVERYONE in Tanzania has malaria. It’s as common as the everyday cold in the US. You get fever, a headache, any ache or pain? Go down to the corner clinic, get blood drawn for a few cents, and then get the medicine for a few more cents. That’s it. Or at least that’s the simple story. (I’ll get to the more complex story in a minute.)

Also, most Tanzanians have never left their village, let alone left the country. Most Tanzanians haven’t been to a hospital. (If they go anywhere, they go to a clinic.) Most Tanzanians barely have enough money to put food on the table. So the idea of spending that kind of cash to medically evacuate is seen as so extravagant. And to do it for MALARIA!? A common COLD!? It must look insane. Literal insanity because then you can't pay for other things like food, education and shelter for the rest of the family. 

Turns out, though, that when we got to Nairobi and further tests were done, my colleague isn't even sick with malaria. This shouldn't be much of a surprise since it's well known that malaria is misdiagnosed most of the time in TZ. It's a major problem here and another stumbling block toward getting proper medical treatment. So that made me think about the average Tanzanian, the one who can't get to a hospital when he or she is sick. Or, maybe let's say they have more money than the average person and they are able to get themselves to the regional hospital. They most likely would still end up with the fate of misdiagnosis, mistreatment, and perhaps even dying. No one would know otherwise than to say that their loved one died of malaria. If they didn't know any better, no one would think that he or she was mistreated or that things could've been handled differently. No one would be outraged or frustrated at the system that let them down. Again. 

So that leads me back to the guys standing on the tarmac talking about how silly it is to fly someone out of Tanzania for something as "simple" as malaria. This "privilege" that we have to know why we are sick and to get the proper care to fix it should not be a privilege. It is a right that all people should have. I wish there was a way for me to change the perspective of those runway guys and all the other people who wouldn't understand why we evacuated my colleague. They should be furious that a sick person can't get adequate care in their city. No. In their COUNTRY. Second, I wish they even understood that the medical care is inadequate. It's just not good enough and they shouldn't take it lying down. I wish they'd question the doctors and the government and the institutions who all say take two pills and call me in the morning. I wish that they wouldn't just look at us and think what a waste and how silly those Westerns are, but instead wonder why we do it and question what should be done within their own system to allow them to have the same care.

*One of the many benefits of being here with an established organization is that they take care of us in this way. We have global medical benefits paid by MKLM that pays for medical evacuation in case of emergency. Of course, there's always bureaucracy involved and we had to fight with the insurance company to approve the evacuation but in the end they did it and to that I am very grateful.

P.S. My colleague is doing okay. Her case is much more complicated and three days in, we're still not sure what is wrong. But she's feeling a lot better and will definitely be okay.

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