Only if we understand, will we care.
Only if we care, will we help.
Only if we help shall all be saved.
~ Jane Goodall
By Mary O’KEEFE
Above is the opening quote on the Phil Simon Clinic website and perhaps best states the foundation of this philanthropic arm of Huntington Memorial Hospital.
Phil Simon was an outgoing, gregarious man who embraced life, according to philsimonclinic.org. He passed away from AIDS in 1995. After the initial diagnosis of HIV, he turned his attention to those less fortunate and alone. He was a man who believed in the spirit of humanity and it is on that foundation that the Phil Simon Clinic was founded by Dr. Kimberly Shriner in 1996.
Part of the clinic’s outreach is the Tanzania Project. In 2016, 1.4 million people were living with HIV in Tanzania. But the outreach, which includes doctors, nurses and other professionals traveling every two years to Tanzania, does not help just patients with HIV but also as many patients as possible who suffer from a variety of medical issues.
Dr. John Rodarte, a pediatrician in La Cañada, and RN Janet Henderson, an emergency room nurse at Huntington Memorial Hospital, both of whom are team members with Montrose Search & Rescue, joined the Tanzania Project by traveling to Africa last month.
Rodarte is the chair of the Dept. of Pediatrics at Huntington Hospital and this was his first time traveling with the project. He had heard about it from Henderson who went two years ago.
“I expected to see a lot of need in terms of lack of resources like I [have seen] in Mexico,” Rodarte said.
He has traveled to Mexico on several occasions with the nonprofit group Healing Hearts Across Borders, an organization he helped create, so he had some expectation of the need he would find. But what he found in Tanzania was beyond anything he had seen before.
“There were lots more illnesses, things I have never seen before,” he said. “There was severe malnutrition.”
Babies would be nursed by their mothers for a few months then fed with cows’ milk, which is not good for infants because their systems cannot handle the high levels of several of the nutrients found in cow’s milk, he added.
“One of the greatest things we did was our pre [operation] exams,” he said.
The doctors and nurses helped support the patients as they prepared for surgeries and they performed general services as well. The medical personnel shared their knowledge with doctors and nurses working in the area by presenting educational lectures. The Project has helped some locals through medical school, too.
“It’s not just about coming in and treating patients but also passing on knowledge,” he said.
Rodarte’s main job was to examine children but he noticed that almost everyone had a chronic cough. He thought it might be related to the interior fires many residents use to heat their homes and cook, which fills their homes with smoke.
“They are breathing black smoke,” Rodarte said.
The surgeons told him that many times they would see patients who have black lungs.
“And there were no diapers,” he added. “And flies were everywhere. So much so you just got used to them.”
But he said that the people he met, including the patients and families, were so amazing and friendly.
“They were very helpful,” he said. “I enjoyed getting to know them.”
Facing all the illness, disease and limited resources Rodarte did wonder if his presence was indeed helping.
“That is one of the things that is so frustrating,” he said. “You don’t know if you are making much of a difference. But I think us being there and just showing that we care did make a difference.”
Although he saw many, many children, there was one who stood out to him.
“My first day in the clinic I was seeing kids for pre-op when a person, an American volunteer, came running down [the hall] and said she had heard there was a pediatrician there,” he said.
Rodarte introduced himself and she said there was a 4-month-old child who needed help. The volunteer did not have medical training but was very concerned about the child. She told Rodarte the baby had a fever of 104 degrees and was possibly having seizures. She was concerned the doctor on-site was not paying enough attention to the child.
“I went up to check and I got up to the floor. There are eight beds and two-to-three [patients] to a bed,” he said. The ward had one IV that had to be shared.
The doctor who worked the ward had started rounds and said he would get to the child when he could.
“I went and examined the child. I told the mom to keep nursing; the [baby] needed fluids,” he said.
Because he didn’t speak the language, Rodarte mimed what he needed and the mom understood. He was worried that the child may develop meningitis. He continued to examine the child and did what he could. He then went back to his other patients. At the end of the day he checked and the child was doing better. By the last day of his trip the baby had been doing well enough to be released.
“The volunteer said, ‘You have no idea what you did.’ Just by seeing the baby I had made the mom so happy,” Rodarte said.
The volunteer told him that just by having an American doctor come and examine the child the local doctor became more attentive.
Just by being there, the medical team appeared to inspire all those around them.
Rodarte arrived back to his Southern California home on a Tuesday and went to work the next day. He said he loves his patients and their families but taking care of them seemed so easy after his trip. A similarity he did notice, though, was that whether the families were in a Tanzanian hospital or at Huntington, the worry that families have over a sick child is the same.
“No matter what your economic status is, you worry,” he said.