By Mary Davis
We’ll call the baby in this story Precious, because his mother looked at him every day like he was the best gift the universe had ever given her. Precious was a newborn baby who I first saw this summer in the minor theater of Levolosi Health Center in Arusha, Tanzania when he was nine days old. He had two large incisions on his stomach from a colostomy he had been given soon after birth. The hospital the mother had gone to did not have colostomy bags available, and neither did Levolosi. So, the mother would change a piece of gauze over baby Precious’ intestine every thirty minutes to an hour. When he first arrived, I remember being sure he wasn’t going to survive. He was so small, skinny, and weak, unlike the pudgy squalling babies I saw every day in the labor ward. The wounds from Precious’ surgery were ringed with a layer of infected pus. But every single day Precious’ mother brought him back to the minor theater. There, I cleaned out his wounds and around the piece of colon using Normal Saline. I then lathered on a layer of triple antibiotic and redid his dressings. His mother was not rich, had another baby to care for, and no job, but her healthcare for Precious was free, like all healthcare for children under five in Tanzania. Precious’ mother would sometimes need to wait an hour to get her baby’s dressing changed. But she was still thankful for the care provided by Levolosi. She still came back every day, and every day I would redo his dressings. In the month I helped take care of Precious, one of his wounds closed and the other got dramatically smaller. Precious’ mother recently reached out to me and told me that when he reaches six months of age, he will get a surgery to repair the colostomy.
Caring for Precious and his mother gave me joy. But it was not because I offered any life-changing care. I have limited knowledge of medicine and just followed the directions of the trained doctors and nurses in changing Precious’ dressings. I am still worried about Precious and think he will have a hard life ahead of him. It is easy to see how the medicine in Tanzania could be better. Some of the practices are outdated and have not been used in America for years or even decades. After being in Tanzania I shadowed doctors in the United States and was shocked by American healthcare’s luxury.
Gleaming white linoleum stretched over the surface of the massive labor ward, contrasting the stained cream tiles in the single labor room of Levolosi. All the tools in the trauma room were single use, unlike Levolosi’s rusting tools that were cycled through the sterilizer at the end of every day. I am grateful for being able to observe the contrast of Tanzania and the United States. But I am also grateful that there were so many similarities between Tanzania and America. ‘Do no harm’ is still the guiding principle of medicine. It still helps more than it hurts.
Many of the Tanzanian doctors who I worked with were volunteers. Medical jobs are scarce since most of the openings are for government positions and the government budget cannot pay the salaries of all the necessary doctors. Because of this, many fully trains doctors work for several years as volunteers after medical school. But they still work eighty hours a week. They work all night and then stay into the next day because the hospital is short-staffed, and sixty patients need to be seen by three doctors between nine in the morning and noon. The doctors work hard and do their best. Tanzania, like the United States, gets better and better in the medical care it offers its citizens. Sixty years ago, baby Precious might not have survived. Now, with luck and continued maternal care, he will be able to grow up to go to school and have his own family. Sharing the beginning of Precious’ journey and seeing a piece of the healthcare journey in Tanzania is what made my summer worthwhile.