Opinion: Letter to the Editor: How To Help People

Opinion: Letter to the Editor: How To Help People

Katie Fairhurst of Potomac surrounded by children during her trip in Kenya.

Katie Fairhurst of Potomac surrounded by children during her trip in Kenya. Photo contributed

Hello! My name is Katie Fairhurst and I am currently an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, where I am studying molecular biology and music performance. My goal is to become a physician-scientist who balances a research career in the United States and a clinical career overseas. My interest in medicine is deep-rooted and dates back to when I was a young girl, when I would perform "surgery" on a plastic skeleton I got for Christmas and read about how my freckles came to be. My father was a huge inspiration for me, as he traveled to Mali, Ghana, Cambodia, and Thailand as a malaria researcher.

Growing up, I knew medicine was for me, and last December, I began planning a trip to Africa to see an angle of medicine that couldn’t really be captured here in the United States.

This summer, through an organization called International Medical Aid, I had the opportunity to work alongside physicians and nurses in Coast Provincial General Hospital (CPGH) in Mombasa, Kenya, for six weeks. CPGH is the second largest public hospital in Kenya and serves its entire coastal region, where 6 million people live. The hospital is a 700-bed facility with an Intensive Care Unit, Main and Minor Operating Rooms, and a Maternity Operating Room used primarily for Cesarean sections. CPGH is known as a very challenging setting to work in, due to lack of resources, facilities, and money. The hospital often faces water and electricity shortages as well. CPGH is an overcrowded yet under-resourced hospital that does not have the infrastructure and services that United States hospitals have.

In the months leading up to my trip, I started a website and platform called “The Jasmine Project,” where I am working to bring awareness to equatorial diseases to not only help improve healthcare systems in countries like Kenya, but to inspire others to do the same. As part of my first initiative for The Jasmine Project, I launched a fundraiser for CPGH, where I sold biscotti and small plants at the Potomac Village Farmer’s Market. We raised a total of $500, thanks to the tremendous help and support of friends, family, and my local community. During my last week at CPGH, I sat down with the chief of administration as well as the heads of the Accident & Emergency and Oncology departments to discuss what their wards needed the most. On Aug. 9, I used the money I raised to buy a new wheelchair, new IV stands, gun thermometers, electronic blood pressure monitors, and a pediatric pulse oximeter.

During this internship, I spent most of my time in the Pediatrics, Accident and Emergency, and Oncology wards of the hospital, but our group also traveled to local primary and secondary schools in Mombasa’s villages to conduct hygiene and medical clinics. Here, we taught children how to properly brush their teeth and wash their hands, took vital signs, and provided health checkups with doctors from the local hospital. I remember hopping out of the Toyota all-terrain vehicle and landing on the sun-cracked earth, where I saw small eyes peering between cracks in the fence and heard muffled giggling and whispering. “Mzunga! Mzunga!” they shouted in Swahili, their native tongue. “White person! White person!”

I have never seen children so excited about a medium firm toothbrush and a tube of Colgate toothpaste, but it was so heartwarming to see. The children loved my camera and were laughing as they pushed and shoved each other to get a moment in front of its lens to show off their silliest face. After putting the camera down, I played a game of tag with the kids before saying goodbye and watched them walk down the path with the biggest grins on their faces and lots of pep in their steps.

I think people often think of Africa as a dangerous land, filled with crime, disease, and poverty, but Africa is really an incredible place filled with spirit, diversity, and nature. I think we have a lot to learn from developing countries like Kenya, where public health facilities like CPGH operate under very difficult conditions and with severely limited resources to achieve a shocking number of successes each and every day. There is so little waste of supplies, and the doctors have amazing methods of caring for patients that don’t require fancy equipment — a powerful asset.

When I think of medicine, I don’t think of a field that is defined by state-of-the-art medical devices or breakthrough vaccine discoveries. I think of a field that is defined by the motivation to simply help people. I think CPGH genuinely reflects this foundation of medicine. Despite financial and material limitations, lives were still saved, and the people of Mombasa came together to take care of each other the best they could, because everyone understands the value of a life. I can’t wait to go back next year and continue to experience a beautiful way of life that embraces harmony and diversity all at once.

I have updated my GoFundMe page; the link is: www.gofundme.com/katieforkenya. All the money raised through my GoFundMe page will be donated in person at the hospital.

Katie Fairhurst