Throughout my medical career, I’ve done several of these humanitarian missions. I have traveled to places as close as Mexico, and as far as Indonesia. I have traveled by car, jeep, airplane, navy ship, and helicopter. I have seen and helped all sorts of people from all walks of life. I thought I had seen it all and that I would be prepared for what Africa had to offer.
On one home visit, the team and I drove out to the outskirts of town. The goal of these home visits were to check up on patients with HIV. We wanted to make sure they were compliant with their medications and provide whatever support they needed. As we came upon several mud huts, I noticed two African kids. There was a boy and a girl. At the sight of our vehicle, they started crying. I pondered why they would cry at the sight of us. However, I quickly lost interest when I caught a glimpse of the amount of flies that were going to greet us. There were flies everywhere! They were on the animals and as well as the people. They were inside the huts and outside. You could not escape the flies.
This was my third home visit, and I already knew the routine. As the doctor I would sit next to the patient, and everyone else would sit around in the circle. The social workers would introduce themselves and start the conversation. They would ask about their living conditions and support system. Next, I would talk about the medical issues and examine the patient. Lastly, the social workers would provide gifts such as food and clothing. Needless to say, this whole process was done with flies buzzing around the room.
The first to appear from the mud hut was an elderly lady. She was delighted to see us. It was obvious we all couldn’t fit in the hut. So she started gathering chairs outside. This was a relief to me as the mud huts were absolutely suffocating with the lack of air and amount of flies. She was able to muster up enough benches and chairs for us. Eventually she called over the two little kids who were crying earlier. She sat them in the same chair next to her. The kids appeared famished and were hesitant to make any eye contact. I suspected the elderly lady was their grandma. We all sat down and waited for their mom. I kept reminding myself to not let the flies bother me, or at least not allow our hosts to see that it did.
Eventually, one of the social workers asked the translator where our patient was. I had presumed our patient was the children’s mother. The men generally died early because of noncompliance to HIV medications. The translator nonchalantly said that the two kids were the patients. To say the least, we were shocked and speechless. No one had the breath to even utter a word. How do you even respond to something like that?
I thought I had seen it all. I didn’t think anything would surprise me, but this did. These kids were in fact compliant with their HIV medications, but they looked famished. Despite having access to medications, these kids didn’t appear healthy or even their stated age. I found out that they did not have access to the basic necessities of life which included food and water. Even though these kids had access to medications, these kids were starting life off debilitated. It wasn’t fair. They were starting life off with one foot in the grave.
I will never forget this experience. This experience has kept me grounded and humble. Humility is a hard concept to teach and learn. Humility must be experienced.
I hope the work we do will inspire more people to help out those less fortunate than us. We cannot fix everything ourselves, but maybe together we can accomplish something bigger than ourselves