Field Report: Medical Conditions in Uganda
By Rebekah Nappa, Production Support
January 1st, 2019 saw me waking up in a hotel room in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. My second day of the year would be spent flying to Entebbe, Uganda, then driving an hour south to Kampala. By the end of the week I would be found curled up in a ball crying in a small storage closet at the Old Mulago Hospital. This trip was no recreational vacation. I was here with a mission. But it was my first time.
Storm Warriors Media Foundation, the organization I work with, had granted a comprehensive media package to Partners for World Health (PWH), a nonprofit organization dedicated to gathering surplus medical supplies from hospitals who would otherwise be sending them to landfills. PWH diligently gathers, organizes, and repackages such and then distributes them to third world populations who otherwise wouldn’t get them but desperately need them. I was part of a nonprofit production team sent to document the entire effort. World renowned photographer David Wright, staff cinematographer Brian Goding, staff Production Supervisor Jessica Jones, and myself, staff editor, sound recordist, audio tech and production support comprised the team for Storm Warriors. Except for David, the rest of us were experiencing our first time traveling abroad for this purpose. My first stamp in my passport was from Dubai. To my surprise, because of an airline delay, we spent our first night, New Year’s Eve, in Dubai. It was a surprisingly luxurious detour filled with typical vacation comforts and an opportunity to see the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world). It was also a stark contrast to where I would spend the next two weeks: traveling through crowded Ugandan hospitals overflowing with suffering men, women and children.
The Partners for World Health is an impressive organization who knows how to do its job well. Its team consists of nurses, med students, and educators, all of whom have skills, experiences or interests in the medical field and deep wells of compassion for others who are in need. Personally, I did not have previous medical experience (I was the type who barely made it through an episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman without becoming squeamish) but I was there as a storyteller on a mission to help document the trip. We wanted to tell the story of what is going on in hopes that others, perhaps others like you, might become inspired to also get involved.
My first day in Uganda, January 2nd, found us in the NICU department of the Kawempe Hospital. Over 50 premature babies were in a too-small room stacked with incubators and breathing tubes.
All of that precious newborn life in the midst of cold and sturdy steel, plastic and tight spaces. Some of them could have easily fit into the palm of my hand, they were so small and vulnerable. They struggled for breath, for life, for a chance to survive – and with mothers and fathers looking on, anxiously awaiting the outcomes. Four of the children died while I was there. It may not seem like enough, but if not for the folks from PWH who were there with supplies and expertise and selfless hearts, and others like them, including Ugandan doctors and nurses, more children would have definitely perished, but they didn’t.
Old Mulago Hospital was a confusing maze of buildings and pathways. We got lost on our first day there and had to ask a staff member to help us find the PWH team. During the impromptu tour, we saw several families doing laundry on the grounds. They lived on the hospital campus in order to be close to their loved ones that were awaiting treatment. Some lived under the beds that the patients slept in. The medical staff was stretched far and few over the campus. During breaks the staff would rest outside in the shade since the buildings had no air conditioning, filled with odors of sweat and blood, and screams of hurting patients. After almost an hour, we found the PWH team in a stuffy, dark room where they were teaching nurses about breast cancer treatment.
A couple of nursing students left to help in the Emergency Room, which was overcrowded with people who had been in Boda Boda (motorcycle) accidents. Brian and I followed them. We admired their strength, dedication, and bravery as they attended to each and every patient. The hospital lacked basic supplies (ie. gauze, tape, gloves, etc.) and used cardboard as casts for broken limbs. PWH gave most, if not all, of the supplies they carried on themselves. The scene reminded me of the often referenced metaphor we are very familiar with at Storm Warriors. These medical students, nurses and doctors and helpers with their many supplies and skills and selfless efforts were lifeboats in a storm of suffering, surrounded by ailing patients and horrific smells. It was tragic but it was wonderful. Not wonderful that people were suffering but wonderful that others were there to help and support. On the last day of the week we returned to Old Mulago to discover even more rooms flooded with patients waiting for treatments. I followed my team into the Wound Care Department where a patient was getting new bandages from the PWH team. I noted the patient’s state: barely covered but for the bandages around his midsection. His thin frame prone on a wooden cot in the corner. His wounds were severe and numerous but he remained silent while his bandages were changed. I felt a sudden rush of emotion and had to excuse myself due to feeling light-headed.
I rushed to a closet where we locked away our camera gear, closed the door behind me, and sat down on the concrete floor. The sight of so much blood and exposed bone was something I was not accustomed to. The smells were unsettling. For a moment, there was a sense of hopelessness on my part, not having any medical experience and no real skill to bring to those in need of healing. I couldn’t help the people in the way they needed it most. I remembered something we say often at Storm Warriors but now it was becoming more personally meaningful.
We each bring what we can; we offer what we have. That’s your lifeboat. Your skills, your talents, your offerings – they are the lifeboat that you bring. I was there to document these happenings in order to raise awareness, in order to inspire and inform others of needs and opportunities to help. I was doing what I could. Our documentaries, short and long, are being created to help support organizations like PWH and the people they serve. Who knows, maybe someone like yourself might discover a purpose through one of these efforts. Maybe others might see this great need that exists all around us and be moved to discover ways to make a difference helping others. What are your gifts, your skills, your calling or experiences that you might be able to share for the benefit of others in great need and despair? I believe most people are Storm Warriors in their hearts, in their day-to-day lives, doing what they can to help and not hurt. Given the chance, some might even go forth with renewed commitment and conviction to help others in places near and far. Far away places like Uganda, or nearby places like those hurting in your community where you live.
We know we cannot alleviate all of the pain and suffering, but what a difference it makes to those we can reach. That’s another thing we remind ourselves every day here at Storm Warriors – what a difference it makes to those we can reach. I didn’t stay curled up in that ball in the closet in the hospital. It was part of my incubation, I think, but I emerged from there with more resolve than ever before. I want to keep being a Storm Warrior, doing what I can, for as long as there are others out there crying for rescue from deep in their storms.