“My heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure.”
I have always associated the month of February with Valentine’s Day and hearts, however the kind of “hearts” I have associated with the holiday have always tended to be of the chocolate variety. So when I was offered the opportunity to provide anesthesia on a congenital heart medical mission trip during the month of February, “hearts” took on a new meaning for the holiday. The two-week trip was at Tenwek Hospital outside of Bohmet, Kenya and treated patients with not only congenital heart lesions, but also patients suffering from complications of rheumatic heart disease. Our team arrived the second week, and included people from both the U.S. and Canada, with varying healthcare backgrounds. During my week in Africa, we performed eight heart surgeries and several cardiac procedures in a makeshift cath lab on patients ranging from one to thirteen years old.
Our first patient was a wonderful, nine year old little girl from Uganda who had been kicked out of school at the age of four because of her activity intolerance. She had a hole in her heart that prevented her from keeping up with her peers. She did remarkably well and hopefully will be able to catch back up with her class.
Mid-week, we saw another patient, who had some bleeding issues after surgery and required several blood transfusions. When the hospital ran out of O+ blood and needed donors, I happened to be the only eligible donor on our team. Of all the wild things I had imagined could happen in Africa, giving blood in a Kenyan mission hospital had never even crossed my mind. Watching my donation immediately help someone, however, was amazing. She received the blood and ended up doing extremely well.
Like any great adventure, the climax came on the final day of the trip. During our second case that day, which was a far bigger and more complicated procedure than initially anticipated, a fire broke out in a hospital building adjacent to our operating room. The burning building housed multiple departments, including the wound care clinic, the canteen, administration, laundry, and boiler.
As the fire raged outside, people were frantically moving patients out of harm’s way. The hospital did not have any sprinkler heads and had rudimentary fire-fighting equipment. The fire truck arrived and did not have water, but only brought people to help.
Our patient was on the cardiac bypass machine during this, and the repair was not complete, so we had no choice but to stay in the operating room and complete the surgery. It was terrifying, not knowing what was going on outside and wondering if the whole place was going to explode. In the midst of the surgery, the surgeon from Kenya looked up and asked if we could stop and say a prayer. Everyone agreed this was a good idea and so we did. We prayed for safety outside the operating room as well as in it, and for God to bring calmness to the operating room so we could finish the procedure and give the child a future. God delivered. The fire was contained to the one building and the child made it out of surgery after 9 hours on the bypass machine. We finished the surgery at 3:30am on Saturday morning. The ICU team was able to take out his breathing tube the following day!
Sunday morning, I attended the hospital’s church service and was amazed by the spirit and hope of the people. We prayed for the hospital and the community, and celebrated that no one had been hurt. The fire had taken so much from the hospital, but ignited the community to gather together and help alleviate the laundry and canteen issues. It was amazing to share that experience with the community and made me proud to obtain a deeper and truer understanding of what global citizenship truly means.