Zambia Medical Mission Reflections

My wife and I were recently able to go on a medical mission trip to Zambia. We were there for four weeks, providing pediatric care at the Zimba Mission Hospital in the town of Zimba. Zimba is located approximately 50 miles northeast of Livingstone – the city we flew into after flying to Johannesburg, South Africa, from Atlanta (that was a long flight!). The population of Zimba and the surrounding countryside is around 11,000, with agriculture being the primary occupation. This was my wife’s third trip to Africa and my second, but it was our first trip there together and our first trip working in a medical capacity. For both of us, it was the fulfillment of a long-term desire to use our medical training to help the people there.

A Limited Supply

As one can imagine, there were not a lot of resources available (compared to what we have access to in Sioux Falls). Some services, such as X-ray, were only available on certain days when the technologist was there, and the lab was similar. The medication availability in the pharmacy changed on a daily basis. People sometimes traveled for a day or more by foot or ox-driven cart just to come to the clinic and see a doctor, so we knew follow-up would be difficult. But despite these challenges, it was an incredibly rewarding experience providing medical care to the Zambian people, who were always very appreciative of our efforts on their behalf.

Healthcare Divide

We saw a wide range of medical problems while we were there. Some were common things that we see on a daily basis here – things like asthma, allergies and viral upper respiratory infections. Others were diseases that are now rare in the United States due to our childhood vaccination program, which helps to prevent them – things like Mumps and Chicken Pox. There were no pediatric specialists anywhere near our facility, so we often found ourselves managing children with HIV, seizures, and diabetes – conditions that would usually be managed with the guidance of our specialty colleagues back home. Fortunately, there are two long-term missionary doctors there who were excellent resources as we adjusted to a different way of doing things.

Having been to Africa before, we didn’t experience the culture shock that some folks will when they find themselves in a third-world country. Poverty and diseases of poverty were all too common. We did experience a little bit of ‘healthcare shock’ though, which took some getting used to. There were moments of profound sadness, and moments of complete joy. By the end of our trip, we found we had been reminded of many lessons learned from our first days in medical school, especially about the importance of a thorough history and physical exam.  Although it would have been nice to have them, we found we didn’t miss some of the fancy tests we have at our disposal as much as we thought we would.  One of my biggest takeaways from the experience is how lucky we are to have the healthcare system we do and the ability it has to make an impact on people’s lives.

It was not all work though – we took the last two days of our trip to see some of the local sights. We spent an afternoon visiting Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The following day we explored Chobe National Park in neighboring Botswana to see some of the local wildlife. It’s good to be back in Sioux Falls, but we look forward to our next opportunity to travel to Africa.

By Dr. Samuel Schimelpfenig

Pediatrician at Avera McKennan

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