Fall Trip to Uganda

EDITOR'S NOTE: Carol wrote this article in January, but due to technical difficulties we weren't able to post until now....she's already back in Uganda as I type this!

It seems like an age ago but really is only a few weeks since we returned from visiting Yakub and Nellie-Ann to support and generally get in the way! Six of us travelled out, four of us had been before, Joe was ‘new to us’ but is actually a Ugandan Asian who left Jinja in the early 70’s, and Robert, a community psychiatric nurse who has a skill with puppets and was hoping to share his craft.

When we arrived at the airport we were stopped and had one of our cases scanned – it’s never happened before and when we were asked did we have drugs we confessed that we had MEDICINES but not ‘drugs’ ….. so that case was opened and because we didn’t have a letter from the Ministry of Health to allow us to bring these items in, they were confiscated. We tried to reason with them that the dressings and medical torches were surely not ‘drugs’ but they held onto them, saying that we should get a letter from the MOH and then we could have them back. Joe was certain that a little offer of a few dollars might have changed the outcome but I am against playing that game and also, it could have turned out worse if that wasn’t the case. Sadly, altho’ we had about 15 cases between us, we lost a lot of medical items in that case that would have made life a lot comfier for people in the villages had we been able to keep hold of them. However, we have learnt from this and have made contact with MOH officials so that we know how to avoid this in the future….. we are always learning!

Getting back to Jinja was a relief after that upset and the hustle and road panic (mine!) of Kampala. Seeing old friends and visiting our favourite coffee shop (we do work sometimes, but sometimes we just get in the way and learn to remove ourselves …. that is our excuse and we are sticking to it!). In our cases we had lots of knitted items that friends had made for premature babies and we visited the Special Care Baby Unit to deliver these. The staff always seem pleased to see us, and we also donated some basic medical items (gloves, gauze swabs, needles, tape) that is in such demand and so scarce. Yakub holds onto some of the baby clothes and delivers them in batches so that it is not the same babies that are getting all of them. With a precarious power supply if the incubators lose heat, then the babies are at real risk and as nobody plans to have a premature baby the families are often not prepared to have to provide for such needs.

One of the highlights for me is to see the effects of the ‘working together’ approach that we take and how well Yakub keeps this going whilst we are away. We have a MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with SNUPA, an organisation that supports and promotes health and equal rights for people with albinism. We transported the nurses and all of our sun-protection items, to an outreach session that they were holding. Along with the doctor who examined the skin of people, we were able to dress some of the worse wounds and then arrange to transport those who needed further treatment and follow-up. Having seen the devastating effects of neglecting skin care for people with albinism, it is professionally very satisfying to be able to contribute to preventing problems. It is also humbling and in equal parts infuriating that there are so little facilities for such vulnerable people. As ever tho’ we are guests in the country and try to keep a-political.

I think that a theme of the trip was caring for and transporting children with profound disabilities. Yakub had met 4 year old Hija who has spina bifida and has no lower-body control, and because of his very large and heavy head, sleeps face down, somehow causing him to get pressure sores on the top of his feet. Our skilled nurse volunteer was able to dress his sores and give advice and we also gave him socks and shoes so that his feet are in a different position and not scraping along the floor when he pulls himself along. We also did the same for 7 year old Miracle who has cerebral palsy and had a large pressure sore on her bottom. Again, because we were in possession of specialist dressings, the sores were treated and had healed considerably when we went back a few days later to review. The parents were left with supplies and shown how to repeat the dressings and given advice on how to prevent them re-occurring. Later in the trip we also met Juliet, and three year old child with the biggest head that I have seen – ever. She has already attended CURE hospital for treatment and her parents said that her head was now smaller since she had had a shunt inserted, but she has no head control at all, is globally delayed and also had pressure sores on each side of her head. Vera did her magic again and dressed the wounds and then we also bought a mattress for her to help relieve the pressure when she is lay down. Later in the trip we took Hija, Juliet and two other children to CURE hospital for their reviews. We have been ‘surveying’ our passengers about our service and all of them answered that if we hadn’t been available and willing then they would not have been able to attend for their vital follow-up appointments. Again, this is humbling – that we are able to help because of the support of Tusc friends who keep us in fuel, but also that these beautiful children could have so much more to help them had they been born in another place/country.

We have done quite a few trips taking injured people from Jinja Main Hospital to Mulago in Kampala, where there are more facilities. Sister Molly called us one day because she had a young girl who had suffered severe burns and needed to be taken to the burns unit in Kampala if she was to have any chance of survival. The story was that she had set herself on fire after her family disapproved of her elopement with her boyfriend, but somehow the story didn’t seem to fit properly and we felt that her family had done this to her. She was severely sick and we were concerned that she would not survive the journey, but also felt that she definitely would not survive if we didn’t do something. After some negotiation with the administration it was agreed that Tusc would pay to fuel the hospital ambulance and they would then transfer her and another severely injured man, and that a nurse would accompany them. The families of these two patients had no money to pay for their own hospital transfers and would otherwise have been left to take their chances in JInja Main – the staff are wonderful but the resources are scarce and they needed intensive care that was not available. Again, transport appeared to be a missing but vital link to having a chance of survival.

There are maternity transfers during the time we were there; Mpumudde clinic staff call on Yakub if they have a labouring woman with a problem, and she is transferred in Nellie-Ann Van rather than the much more risky (and sometimes impossible for them) boda-boda taxi ( a motorbike!). And of course, our Friday Friends group continues, with children being taken for physiotherapy at Soft Power Education. It is wonderful to see these lovely children and their mums/jaaja’s/carers again, and to see the real progress that some of them are making. It is a joy to share in the laughter and achievements and to applaud them all for the efforts that they are making. Again, they all state in the surveys that they would not be attending if there was not the transport and organisation by Tusc!

The trip is over far too quickly. We share farewell tears with our friends, wish and pray for their safety until we meet again and feel blessed that we have shared the smiles of people there. Before we land in the UK we are all planning for the next trip …… for we have the water of Uganda in our blood now and we can never be free of it.

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