Jennifer has transported 2,000 pounds of medical supplies in military bags (and wrangled for hours with immigration officials at the airport), all of which is stocked on operating room shelves by 50-year-old scrub tech Daisy Dailey. There are syringes and thermometers, bandages and dressings, masks and gloves, acetaminophen and stainless steel surgical blades (numbers 11, 12, and 15), miles of suture (plain gut, chronic gut, and fast-absorbing gut), and "no-no's," which are post-op arm restraints. Jennifer has even brought books about sign language, knowing that several parents will show up with deaf children in the hope that surgery will correct their hearing. The ORs are dusty, and the gurneys must be tested to make sure they actually have functional wheels. There is no soap at the scrub sinks, just a watery green liquid that smells like industrial-strength floor cleaner. When the autoclave, an apparatus for sterilizing instruments, conks out, Daisy boils water. "Sterility is a relative term here," Jennifer confides. "The water to wash your hands could be worse than what you're washing off."
Nancy Crisler, 50, and Claudia Gibson, 51, are readying their respective domains: the recovery room and the post-op ward. The two women are sisters from Oregon, both of whom came to the nursing profession by circuitous routes. With a degree in community service and public affairs, Claudia went to work for a local health department, "but I had way too much energy to sit at a desk," she admits. Nancy took a summer job with the forest service in a rural community of 1,200 people and stayed to marry a man she met there. "I needed a skill that I could use while living in a small town," she says, "and I figured small towns always have schools and hospitals." The sisters were planning an indulgent trip together to celebrate Nancy's recent half-century birthday but chose to help Operation of Hope instead. "It's such a cool way to travel," says Claudia. "There's no other way you can step into another culture as quickly." The two can communicate with each other in that wordless way that siblings have, and sometimes their communication seems to convey, "What have we gotten into?" But they manage to care for their patients in strange and rudimentary surroundings. When Nancy runs out of plastic bags for her patients' take-home meds, she packs them in the gauzy shoe covers used for the OR.
Like Dr. Joe, 27-year-old medical resident Carrie Francis, MD, originally wanted to be a vet, but a job at an animal clinic in her hometown of St. Louis revealed that she liked only horses and dogs, didn't want to touch anything else. "And I realized I loved talking to people, being a patient advocate, empowering them to take responsibility for their healthcare," she says. "I didn't like dealing with long-term diseases that aren't curable. I wanted to cut out the problem." Surgery seemed the right fit, and a mentor in medical school found her a research project in otolaryngology, the specialty that deals with the ear, nose, and throat. "It's like trying on shoes," she says. "You know once you've slipped into a comfortable pair."
For a young doctor whose training has been 21st-century high-tech, the bare-bones facilities in Zimbabwe are a shock. "In the States, we have machines to do everything for us," says Carrie, "protocols that print out as soon as a patient is brought to the floor, calculators for formulas that people used to do in their heads. It's invigorating to compensate. To actually examine the patients, take a history, and listen to them when you don't have a blood pressure cuff, it's a challenge. But it's fun to become a grassroots physician."
We Hear You!