In May, I wrote the first post on “Hands” and really didn’t expect there to be a “part 2”. But a friend of 2 Guys by the name of Rodney wrote to me and told me about a friend who had worked in Malawi, Africa, and had created a portfolio of images based on hands while she was there. One thing led to another, and I recently received from Donna Kaminski her images and a beautiful narrative of her experience in Malawi. With Donna’s permission, I will be sharing with you some of her images and parts of her narrative.
But first, you may be interested in some background on Malawi. I had to do some research because I’m afraid I was woefully unaware of anything about the country, so here are some facts courtesy of Wikipedia.
The Republic of Malawi:
- is a landlocked country in southeast Africa that was formerly known as Nyasaland
- has an estimated population of more than 13,900,000
- was a British colony until 1964 and now has a democratic, multi-party government
- is among the world’s least developed countries and depends heavily on outside aid to meet development needs
- has a low life expectancy and high infant mortality, and there is a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS
- is nicknamed “The Warm Heart of Africa”.
Donna travelled to Malawi as a medical school student in April of this year. She wrote that she was part of a group that was “co-sponsored by two great organizations, the first being Ministry of Hope, a Malawian-based not-for-profit organization that has two nurseries in Lilongwe and Mzuzu for orphans, some of whom have, or whose parents have had HIV. The second co-sponsoring organization is DOCare, an organization that hosts medical missions in various countries, including the Amazon region of Ecuador, Guatemala, and India. I had been with DOCare to Ecuador and Guatemala (and just recently to India), and so I received an email with information about the trip stating that they had an opening for one more medical student. The email happened to come on my birthday. It seemed perfect- and indeed it was. And so, it was my connection with DOCare International that brought me to join the mission, and to learn more about and connect with the Ministry of Hope.”
Donna and Jim Schumaker, MD, made these images and Donna wrote of her experience in an essay entitled “Reflections from the Warm Heart of Africa”. Donna writes:
As we pulled up to the village of Chibanzi, a sea of faces shining like beacons of light greeted us, their voices chanted “Ozungu!” in unison. The chant resonated like the beating of a deep drum, heard throughout the village. Looking out from the lorry, I saw a multitude of faces filling the horizon, each chanting this one single word. As they chanted, there was a depth to their tone, with each repetition almost becoming louder and more pronounced, and gave us a feeling of both being so welcomed, and so desperately needed. It was at that moment, that it became clear to me what having a mobile medical clinic meant to the people of Chibanzi, and to the several villages we served while in Malawi, Africa.
As my ears listened to each patient, my heart melted with each patient that I saw. Children and babies with fevers, their eyes still wet with tears, not eating, and crying. Slides we would have analyzed would come back with what was becoming a staple diagnosis: malaria. We came to learn that malaria was endemic among the villages we were in, and particularly so at this time of the year. One child gently shook on the examining table with rigors, as she lay comatose, taken captive by the malaria that made its’ home in her brain. And as we spent time there, the stories of family members who had died because of untreated malaria filled our ears, making us realize the toll that this parasite was taking on so many villages like this one.
Some children came to us with full, almost protruding bellies, filled with helminths, or worms. Others came with similarly full bellies, with their hair streaked in almost a fluorescent orange hue, whispering to us that they had malnutrition. And many had coughs, lingering coughs that seemed to hold on for weeks, and swallowed their sentences as they tried to speak with us.
Throughout the days of the clinic, as 1,500 faces and lives came to us, the greatest gift was not what we gave to them, but what they gave to us. Each person as they came, extended to us an invitation to share with us their lives, to walk with them on their journey, and that invitation was entirely sacred and beautiful. It made me realize that as someone comes to us, and invites us into their journey, that this is the true gift. The feeling that I had as this patient embraced me, holding a small packet of capsules between her thumb and index finger, had this goodness to it, leaving me with a feeling of completeness, and true happiness- in that moment, I couldn’t visualize anything being as precious or as rewarding.
With limited resources, the Malawian government does what it can to provide care for its’ people. Per year, the Malawian government pays $12 per person for healthcare. According to the 2008 World Bank estimates, Malawians themselves earn $280 on average per year, which means that not only hospital copays of $1-2 per day but also transportation to the hospital are often more than they can afford. The healthcare system has struggled with HIV, as the virus has devastated many communities. In 2002, the country experienced a famine because so many farmers were either infected with the virus or taking care of a loved one living with the virus. Between 500,000 to 1,000,000 children are left orphaned after losing one or both parents to HIV. The average life expectancy has plummeted to 43, largely due to the HIV epidemic.
With resources limited, I have to share that I was both moved and touched by what I saw in the care that was given in Malawi. While doing rounds at Nkoma Hospital, the physicians, nurses, and staff breathed a determination to provide everything they could to each patient. Each person seemed to think critically, using their hands, their eyes, their ears to diagnose each patient. Medications and tests were given with an additional level of judiciousness, asking not once, not twice, but three times whether the test was necessary, and how it might change the way the person’s disease is managed. Every morsel of what was available was as precious as a diamond, used with a meticulous but loving amount of care. It truly felt to me that the doctors, nurses, and staff all lived with a deep desire to do everything possible for each patient. It was quite beautiful.
What was most touching to me was the beauty of the Malawian people, the warm heart that seems to live in each patient and person that we met during our experience there. At the end of my time with each patient, some would reach out their hand, and with a wide smile say “Zikomo”, or thank you. Some would reach out and hug me. And all, every single person had a deep gratitude, and a warmth that just emanated from their being.
My experience in Malawi, Africa was rich with so many beautiful memories and lessons learned. Each day seemed to chisel and sculpt the person who had arrived, and transform me. While I had gone with the hope of giving of myself, I felt that it was I who received the greatest gift. The Malawians taught me how to be resourceful, and to clinically use my skills in a way that I had never been asked to do before. And more than that, through their example, they taught me what it is to treat your patients and your friends as your mother, father or brother- that is, with love and compassion. They showed me the beauty that exists in living a life of compassion, both as a future physician, and as a person. This is the single most valuable lesson I have learned in my medical training, and one that I will cherish always.
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Truly an inspiring story and I think Donna and Jim’s photography captures the “warm hearts” of the people in Malawi, as well as their own. I asked Donna where people could go for more information. She replied:
“There are many wonderful organizations and websites that offer information on Malawi. Closest to my heart is that of Ministry of Hope, which truly does beautiful and wonderful work. In addition to being a safe haven and home to orphans who lost their mothers to HIV or to the birthing process or illness, they have organized efforts to create on-going care to the villages we were in. They are able to have a nurse continue to go out to villages and provide on-going care to the villages were were in once to twice a month, which is tremendous- and truly creates on-going care. Their website is www.ministryofhope.org.”
Thank you Donna for sharing your story and images, and for all the good work that you do.
By the way, our readers will be interested to know that Donna has since graduated from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and is now in residence. Congratulations Dr. Kaminski!
Posted by Ed