By Mary O’KEEFE
here are times when we, as Californians, as Americans, become a bit isolated from the world. Even though we get reports from other parts of the globe, we get used to having food readily available in abundance at stores and in restaurants and strong homes to shelter us from the elements. We know that if and when needed, medical help is as close as the nearest emergency room.
As a society we get used to this and, in fact, expect it. But there are some individuals who get a chance to experience a world so foreign to them it takes time to come to terms with what they have seen. When they do they develop a greater appreciation for the opportunities at home.
For Janet Henderson, that eye-opening journey began when she joined the team from Huntington Memorial Hospital and traveled to Tanzania, Africa to share her skills as an ER nurse.
“Kim asked who wanted to go on a medical mission to Tanzania,” Henderson said.
Henderson was referring to Dr. Kimberly Shriner who, in 1996, founded The Phil Simon Clinic out of Huntington Memorial Hospital. The clinic is a “multidisciplinary facility providing comprehensive medical and psychosocial care for persons infected with HIV,” according to the clinic’s website. For the last 10 years Shriner has taken a group of doctors and nurses to Tanzania to work with patients who have HIV/AIDS and to share knowledge with local medical personnel. They travel to Africa because of the estimated 33 million people who are infected with HIV/AIDS around the world, 28 million of them live in sub Saharan Africa, according to the Phil Simon website.
Henderson is an ER/trauma nurse with Huntington Memorial Hospital and this year the timing of the Africa trip worked with her schedule and she signed up.
They went to Arusha, a city in northern Tanzania, and from the minute they arrived Henderson was in awe of how doctors, nurses and patients work with the minimum amount of equipment to provide medical care.
“It was incredible. People say it is so hard to explain unless you [experience] it,” Henderson said. “From the very first day I [wondered], ‘What am I going to be able to do for these people?’”
What she found was that she and the team were able to provide hope and education.
“What [people at] this clinic do is tell these people that we are going to return,” she said. By building this trust both the patients and the staff feel that someone cares, that someone has their back.
The contrast between state-of-the-art Huntington Memorial and the Tanzania hospital was immense. The Arusha hospital had open windows; spiders and bugs were free to crawl in and out.
“The families had to bring all the linens and food for [their family members] in the hospital,” she said.
Those who came to the hospital arrived on foot, traveling on dirt roads to get medical help. Although they are impoverished, Henderson said the people she encountered were so kind and friendly. But there was no escaping how HIV/AIDS had decimated the area.
Many of the men have died from the disease leaving women, many of them infected, to support the family and care for their children, who are also HIV positive.
“We went to one home and expected a mother to come out and two little kids came out (instead). Their mother had died two months before,” she said.
There has been progress with HIV/AIDS and with the help of medication it has become a survivable disease if the medication is taken properly.
While there, Henderson gave a presentation to a group of nurses on caring for trauma patients.
“I gave basic information but they were so grateful,” she said.
The team brings over a large amount of supplies during their three-week visit and divides it between two hospitals.
For Henderson the trip was rewarding and inspirational. She did have some free time though and decided to spend it climbing a mountain.
“Kilimanjaro was not even on my bucket list but I just figured I am over here. If I don’t climb it I would regret it,” Henderson said. “I was only an hour and a half away.”
This is a good time to mention that Henderson is a longtime member of Montrose Search and Rescue and climbing mountains is not a new thing for her, however … Mount Kilimanjaro was a little different than the MSR training she is used to.
“I had a guide and was with nine people who carried [equipment and tents],” she said.
She was a little apprehensive because she was climbing without anyone from her team – it was just her and her guide.
“I was ecstatic but being alone was a little nerve-wracking,” Henderson said.
It was a four-day hike to basecamp, then about six hours to summit.
“We left at midnight and [made it to summit] at 6:30 a.m.,” she said.
Once up on the mountain she walked around to an area where there was a sign stating she was at the highest elevation in Africa – 19,336 feet.
It was -15 degrees Fahrenheit when she reached the summit.
“But it was worth every minute,” Henderson said.
Henderson would like to return to Africa with the medical team. Shriner has gained the trust of the villagers over the years. The hospital/clinic is in need of repair and during this trip she found that the elders of the village had donated the land to build a new facility.
So the support between Huntington Memorial and Arusha, Tanzania will continue and grow.
For those who would like more information on the Huntington Memorial Hospital Phil Simon Clinic or how to donate go to www.philsimonclinic.org.