Published: Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Student brings health care to Kenya

  • Katie Main, 19, of Mill Creek, spent all of January in Kenya offering free health care to locals. Main, a pre-med student, went with 11 classmates and...

    Contributed photo

    Katie Main, 19, of Mill Creek, spent all of January in Kenya offering free health care to locals. Main, a pre-med student, went with 11 classmates and two professors from Linfield College in Oregon.

MILL CREEK — The sights and sounds in the Kenyan teaching hospital were unlike any Mill Creek resident Katie Main had experienced back home.
While completing rounds with physicians, Main, 19, recalled seeing adult patients sharing beds post-surgery and a “funny” smell she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
“You have to wait until your condition is so serious you have to see a doctor, even if you don’t have money, because there’s no other choice,” Main said.
The pre-med student spent all of January in Eldoret and the capitol, Nairobi, offering free health care to 2,700 locals alongside 11 classmates and two professors from Linfield College, in Oregon.
During rounds at a teaching hospital in Eldoret, the facility was noisy, crowded and lacked sanitation. Children were mainly treated for fungus growing on their head or intestinal worms. The surgical ward was made up of three to four cubicles with only eight beds. Two adult men had to share a bed post-surgery. One of the men had suffered abdominal trauma and was still bleeding.
“Another person was in their bed that they didn’t even know,” Main said.
Main noticed there were patients so grateful to have health care, taking on painful procedures for which most Americans would demand medication.
One woman had her thumb lanced open to relieve pressure with only a local anesthetic.
“We were impressed — she toughed it out and didn’t make a sound,” Main said.
Linfield College partnered with Portland-based Open Arms International to let students volunteer at the teaching hospital and set up a five-day medical clinic in the slums to treat locals. Open Arms International is a humanitarian group that raises African and Indian children orphaned by civil war, AIDS and other diseases.
Main and her peers pitched tents, prepared medicines and set up medical clinics, where they recorded blood pressure, heart rates and temperatures. The students taught health care practices to Open Arms Kenyan staff and locals and served free food to more than 100 malnourished children. During the five-day clinic, Main and the volunteers treated 1,200 people.
“It was hard knowing that people we saw hadn’t seen a doctor in six months to a year,” Main said.
Assimilating back to life States-side after the trip has been harder than Main expected. After seeing Kenyans survive with little, worrying about television programs, buying make-up or looking at how people dress seems trivial.
“I see excess here and things that used to be important, and it’s hard to believe they mattered compared to people who don’t know when their next meal will be,” she said.
A few of Main’s classmates have been to Costco since the trip and were completely overwhelmed by seeing food in bulk, she said.
Observing the difference in how Americans and Africans prioritize material things and people has pushed Main to take a step back. She used to think she was down to earth before her trip, but she learned she had room to grow.
That’s not to say American culture is petty, she said.
“It’s not insignificant, it’s just different,” she said. “We forget the people we spend time with.”
The opportunity to travel to Kenya materialized when Main enrolled in Linfield’s course “Health care in Kenya.” To prepare for the trip, Open Arms staff held meetings to prep the students culturally. A series of shots including a yellow fever vaccine and taking thyroid and malaria pills, were part of preparations.
Despite the shots and health risks, Main cannot wait to return.
“In ways their lives are better than ours. They put an emphasis on people and relationships — here we place a value on who has the nicest car,” she said.