Jessie* looked like something out of a textbook: bone thin arms, legs puffy with edema, perfectly round stomach, glazed over eyes. As the physician quizzed me on the appropriate treatment for malnutrition, Jessie barely reacted. He looked like the stereotypical “starving African child” I’d seen on ads for this non-profit or that charity fund more times than I could count. But he was right in front of me now—my patient. As we talked with his grandma, the story of his five short years took shape: his mom had left, his step-mom neglected him, and his dad was working too much to care for him. He had been passed around until he ended up in front of me, and finally he was being cared for. Over the next few days, Jessie came alive. His eyes were brighter, he looked at me (the “muzungu”, or white person) with the mix of interest and hesitancy the other children did, and he ate with vigor. A few days of cheap treatment was bringing the dead back to life before my eyes. He was getting back his personality, and with it, a second chance at life.
Jessie was just one of the many children who I met during my three weeks at Bwindi Community Hospital in Uganda. The kids would come in with severe GI illnesses or ravaged by fever from malaria. In hardly any time at all, they would be back up playing, hard to pin down long enough to take their temperature. From confined to a bed with a fever to playing soccer in the middle of the ward, the kids never seemed to stay down for long.
However, what struck me most was not the resiliency of the children, but the ability of the physicians to do so much with so little. Liver and kidney function tests broken? Start a slow trial of a medication and watch vitals carefully. No morphine in stock? Carefully adjust the adult doses of other pain medications. When we encountered stumbling blocks that left me clueless about what move to make next, the Ugandan doctors seemed to move past them with ease. They used their brains, not just machines. Compared to the endless tests results, CT scans, and MRIs I had become accustomed to looking at through my first year of medical school, these doctors were daily using ingenuity and creativity in addition to medications. It was a steep learning curve of new diseases and treatments, but by my third week I found myself thinking a lot less about what test I would like to order and a lot more about how to solve real problems.
Kristy Sessions is a second year medical student from Oviedo, FL who is interested in pediatrics and family medicine. She enjoys swimming, hiking, and traveling.