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Life as a VSO volunteer in Lumezi

In this beautifully written piece, former VSO volunteer Eileen Parkes reminisces on her life-changing placement in Zambia...

Surreal memories of Zambia

The smell of rain on baked earth is unfamiliar in Ireland – now that smell brings memories of a village in rural Zambia. Some recollections seem surreal, so far removed from my life now. The night I spent trying to treat a young child in a swirling storm of locusts. The electricity was off, and the locusts kept flying in front of the torch we were using. Seeing the staff collect bags of locusts as a tasty snack. The hospital security guard casually kicking a snake out of the way as we walked into hospital. Watching a lizard swallow a large centipede, or a tortoise taking shelter in our porch during a downpour.

Other memories are triggered by events here – the vaccination debate is worldwide. The difference in Zambia is that measles is more often fatal, and the rejection of vaccines stems from mistrust of western medicine. Losing both a 7-month old and a young man to measles has made me a lifelong supporter of efforts to improve worldwide vaccination rates. Fake news also is universal – the difficulty convincing a grandmother to let her child have oxygen. She was convinced we were performing an exorcism, while we were desperately trying to save a child’s life. (Her granddaughter recovered, and the grandmother became a staunch supporter). Those who had exhausted every alternative medicine avenue before bringing their gravely ill child to our door – the stakes were high for our western medicine to succeed, and sometimes the odds were too highly stacked against us.

My husband and I spent a year – our first year of married life – in Lumezi, this rural Zambia village, over three hours' drive from the nearest supermarket (and without our own transport for much of our time). It was in many ways a baptism of fire – we were the first western doctors to spend any time at this small hospital. The first few months were spent adjusting expectations on both sides. In Zambia all doctors are surgeons – it took some time for us to establish that while not surgeons, we were experienced and competent doctors. Rather than running a whole hospital, we narrowed our focus – I worked on the children’s ward, focusing on malnutrition and HIV.

The highs

We had some success stories – in particularly, the infant mortality rates halved while we were there. We found oxygen tanks that had been donated to the hospital – growing mould in a corner. We cleaned them up, and put them to use. Once staff saw the lifesaving difference they made, their use became more common. We worked hard to get a consistent malnutrition service running, with a remarkable day when we were able to discharge a set of triplets home who had been on the malnutrition ward for weeks. Simply having a daily ward round and reviewing every patient made a difference, and the nurses began to have confidence to bring problems to us.

We had one child, so gravely ill, his mother had simply given up. She watched us work on her son, using a needle to get fluid in through his shin bone as he was so dehydrated. Later, as he recovered and began to talk and laugh again, she told how her despair turned to joy.

The lows

Other times we were less successful – one small child was seriously ill with meningitis, we treated him and he improved, but the muscles in his legs remained stiff, irreversible nerve damage from the infection. Every month his family brought him to clinic, and every month I explained how we couldn’t make this better. The physiotherapy services we enjoy here were not available, and the exercises I suggested made no sense to the family. A small child we treated for malnutrition and malaria, and diagnosed with HIV. We gave his family an appointment with the clinic to follow up – they never returned to our hospital.

Hope for the future

Years on from our time in Zambia, small children of our own keep us close to home, for now, and remind us of the preciousness of life. They remind us of the value placed on our children’s lives with a full healthcare system in place, a value we tried to extend to the children we treated in Zambia. We still work for the day when all children’s lives will be of equal value.

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