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Medical Teams Blog: Stories of boldly breaking barriers to health

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  • Petrona's Story: Good hygiene and a healthy life

    by Hannah Beighle | Sep 09, 2016

    Life is hard when your children are constantly sick. This is the challenge Petrona faced in the town of Senahu, Guatemala—Petrona’s two children were sick so often, but she didn’t know why.

    What she didn’t realize was that the answer was right outside her door. Petrona and her family live on a small home cut into the rural hillside. Without the money to build an outhouse, they used a hole in the ground up a small path from the house to go to the bathroom. When it rained, the path would become too slippery and muddy for Petrona to take her children up, so they would just use the land near their home -- the same area where the kids would play when the rains stopped.

    Petrona_Family_Guatemala_HomePetrona had another problem, too—their family’s water came from a nearby stream, and the water wasn’t clean. Petrona wanted to keep her children healthy, but she didn’t know how.

    Then, one day, Petrona heard the mothers in her community talking about Medical Teams International, who had begun working there.  She was very curious about the organization. Soon, one of the mother counselors who had been trained by Medical Teams came to Petrona’s home. She told Petrona that her children’s illness might be caused by the dirty water they were drinking, the dirty conditions outside the house, and the lack of handwashing in the family.

    She took the advice to heart. The very next day, Petrona went to her neighbor’s house and received permission to share their water source so her family could have access to clean water. Within a few months, she heard that Medical Teams would be installing latrines in her community. She met with the community health coordinators, and was thrilled when they told her she could have a latrine.

    Petrona_Family_Guatemala_Latrine_Community_Health“When I learned that I could get a latrine, I was very happy because I wouldn’t have to take the children far away or have them going in the yard,” she said. “I hoped they would be healthier.”

    Petrona said the team members who came to install the latrine were friendly and played with her children, and she and her husband prayed with them after the work was finished. The team also provided a Tippy Tap—a bucket with a spigot and bar of soap—for the family to wash their hands. 

    Now, Petrona’s children are healthy and she is teaching them how important it is to wash their hands before they eat and after they use the latrine. The new handwashing bucket and the latrine have truly changed her family’s life.

  • Nola's journey: What it's like flee your home

    by User Not Found | Sep 02, 2016

    It’s terrifying and painful to imagine our neighborhoods and communities turning into areas where kidnappings, rapes, and looting are a constant threat. However, this scenario became a reality for Nola. Nola recounted to Medical Teams International a glimpse into what forced her to flee her home in South Sudan, “Soldiers wait outside your house leaning on a tree, and then when you go out to use the bathroom they take you away.” Nola knew her family had to escape to Uganda.


    Nola’s story is not rare. Thousands of have reported looting, burning of homes, and murders of civilians. These horrifying daily realities have caused a mass exodus to Uganda. In the first three weeks of fighting, more refugees arrived in Uganda than during the entire first half of 2016. Ninety percent of the refugees entering Uganda are women and children.

    “Some of the women and children told us they were separated from their husbands or fathers by armed groups, who are reportedly forcibly recruiting men into their ranks and preventing them from crossing the border.”

    "Some of the women and children told us they were separated from their husbands or fathers by armed groups, who are reportedly forcibly recruiting men into their ranks and preventing them from crossing the border." reported Adrian Edwards of the UNHCR.

    We are proud to be partnering with UNHCR at refugee camps across Uganda - providing medical care for refugees who have nowhere else to go. So many like Nola need help - it’s because of your support that her family will have access to medical care when they need it.

  • Preparing Emergency Responders

    by User Not Found | Aug 26, 2016

    In many places in rural Cambodia, emergency medical services work differently than they do in the U.S. Years of violence and destruction from the Khmer Rouge has taken a serious toll on this country’s development. Instead of an ambulance quickly arriving at the site of an accident and providing care, emergency vehicles may show up under-equipped and responders may not have the training they need to save the victim’s life - triage, how to treat patients at the scene of an accident, or even how to safely administer CPR. The need is urgent - roads are developing quickly, putting even greater strain on a system that is already struggling to recover.

    Medical Teams International has a solution for this growing complication in Cambodia. In several provinces, we have taken action to improve emergency medical services, or put services into place where there were none. To do this, we are training people at all levels: doctors, nurses, physicians and first responders. We're also helping provide equipment and technical support in some areas. This program is providing education to improve the quality of medical care in emergency situations.

    Emergency training in action: Dr. Tam

    Dr. Tam is a doctor in Cambodia and an inspiring example of how this training changes lives in the hands of local medical staff. With the provided training, Tam says he feels “refreshed” and is now confident in emergency situations. He learned how to assign degrees of urgency of the wounded or ill when there are a large number of patients, how to perform patient assessment, how to do CPR as well as learning how to treat a patient at the scene of an accident. Tam says his training “fills the gap” in what Cambodian doctors and nurses know to do, and he is immensely happy about what he has learned. During the training, he was one of Medical Teams International’s best students and is now training other doctors in the hospital where he works.

    Before, medical responders wouldn’t have known what to do. They would have thrown the patient into the back of the vehicle and transported them to the hospital, but with his training, Dr. Tam knew what to do.

    Tam’s training is already saving lives. Not long ago, Dr. Tam arrived at the scene of a car accident where one person was severely injured. Before, medical responders wouldn’t have known what to do. They would have thrown the patient into the back of the vehicle and transported them to the hospital, but with his training, Dr. Tam knew what to do. This time, he was confident about his actions. He performed a rapid assessment on the bleeding and unconscious patient and was able to stabilize him. Tam then transported the patient to a hospital, monitoring his condition along the way. Upon arrival, Tam’s staff hooked the patient up to an IV to supply medicine, before the patient was rushed to emergency surgery.

    Reflecting on his training, before and after, Tam said, “Without MTI, those patients die on the scene. Because of this knowledge, the ability to save lives is increasing.” With his training, Dr. Tam Harklang is giving other first responders in Cambodia the tools to save lives.

  • Notes from the ground: Helping Syrian refugees

    by Emily Crowe | Aug 24, 2016

    There are thousands of refugees in Greece in need of help, of hope, and someone to care for them. One of many urgent needs is the lack of health care. And this need only increases as more refugees join the thousands in Greece unable to continue their journeys as the European borders have closed.

    Last week, Sharon Tissell, a Medical Teams International RN volunteer, shared stories with us from her first day at the Diavata refugee camp where 1,200 refugees live. Now in the last days of her trip, Sharon has a heartbreaking but important new perspective on life in the camp for these refugees.

    By Sharon Tissell, RN


    It is sad but sadly not surprising that there is a crisis of mental health among the Syrian refugees we are helping in the camps. Between the harrowing escape from their homes and the devastating loss of hope as they languish in refugee camps, it is often too much to bear.

    Just today, a young mother was urgently transported from our clinic to the hospital after drinking bleach in an attempt to finally ease her suffering.

    In the afternoon, I met Samira, a 44 year-old woman, who, with her six children, was urged by her husband to flee the conflict in Syria. Samira's husband is now disabled from a stroke and was unable to make the arduous journey. For the sake of her children, she was forced to leave him behind and now languishes in this camp. Samira came to see us for treatment of her anemia and high blood pressure but what was most evident was her depression and discouragement because of her situation.

    This discouragement and depression affects all ages.

    Later, Hassan, a beautiful three year old boy, was brought into the clinic by his mother who was concerned that he was not eating. Hassan had lost seven pounds in the last two weeks and refused to eat most of the time. The times he would eat were the few times his mother could afford to buy food to cook the usual meal she used to serve her family in Syria. When a full examination showed no illness, we suspected the stress of their desperate circumstances was affecting even this precious 3-year-old.

    Hassan never smiled and clung to his mother.

    The suffering is palpable in every refugee we see though some are holding on to hope that there is still a future for them…

  • Helping Syrian refugees: Life in Diavata

    by Tyler Graf | Aug 19, 2016

    For refugees in Greece, health care needs are growing more urgent with each passing day. With European borders effectively closed, and war raging in Syria, thousands of refugees have been confined to makeshift camps for months. Unable to to move freely or work, to eat well or seek adequate care, these refugees are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

    They are losing hope.

    But your gifts are providing care! Earlier this month, Medical Teams International dispatched a volunteer nurse and doctor to provide care to the neediest refugees, those whose physical and psychological conditions are deteriorating. The following is a dispatch from the field, from long-time volunteer nurse Sharon Tissel, who has spent two weeks with refugees in northern Greece.

    Today, World Humanitarian Day, is an appropriate time to reflect on what it means to be a humanitarian and why it matters.

    By Sharon Tissell, RN
    As we arrive at the Diavata refugee camp, where 1,200 refugees live, there is already a patient waiting in the shipping container that has been remodeled to serve as our clinic.

    She is wailing.

    She complains of severe abdominal pain and is surrounded by her concerned family.

    It takes a half hour and several medicines to settle her down enough to examine her. Her exam turns out to be unremarkable and further investigation reveals she suffers from repeated psychosomatic episodes related to trauma she has experienced. Resources of the kind she needs are extremely limited. Even Greek nationals have to wait months for a referral to specialists.

    There are psychologists who regularly see patients in the camps, who provide some treatment for cases like these. So many of these refugees live in circumstances they never imagined, and for some reality is too much to bear.

    Beautiful little 1-year-old Kosay had been nursing poorly and running a fever. His concerned mother brought him in at the end of clinic day to be checked. His exam looked completely normal until I found the culprit. Kosay had severe tonsillitis. This is not an unusual diagnosis. But in the setting of a refugee camp, a young child could become extremely ill. The goal of our work here is to catch such infections before they become life threatening events.

    With consistent access to good health care for these refugees, we hope to avoid those common diseases that can escalate into emergencies. If we do our work well, we will have few emergencies and instead be able to treat healthcare needs early, focusing on preventing the diseases that can impact the heath of a whole refugee population. Kosay and his reassured mother went home with medicine but also with a plan for improved health. That is why Medical Teams is here.

    Our clinic day is long and the heat is exhausting. To get a breath of fresh air I took a walk down the long paths that wind through Diavata, accompanied with Ahmed, our Egyptian interpreter. We chatted with the children, played some silly games and after a repeated invitation accepted a chair to sit with Ibrahim and Sadsa. 

    Greece, Ibrahim, Razan and Sadsa, Aug. 2016 (2)
    Ibrahim and Sadsa share cups of a coffee-like drink.

    Sadsa quickly prepares the strong, black, scalding drink which she offers us in a plastic glass. Seeing her graceful movements, I can imagine her serving guests in her home, using the lovely tiny crystal glasses common to Syria. Those, and almost all their belongings, did not make the journey with her. She refuses to take a chair but sits on the ground next to her husband and smiles shyly. 

    Ibrahim and Sadsa have four children and they relate to me how Ibrahim provided for his family as an international driver. This provided a good income for his family but also took him away from home for long periods at a time. With the increasing violence from ISIS in their area, they joined with many others and paid for a place on the rubber boats traveling to Greece. 

    Maybe because Ibrahim was a driver or maybe just bad luck but he was assigned to drive the boat to Greece. (The smugglers make so much money on these transactions that they consider the boat as an operating expense, never expecting to retrieve it.) Ibrahim remembers the treacherous journey. He felt responsible for this group of Syrians hanging on for dear life. He says the boat was “swamped” twice and one time everyone was in the water clinging to the boat. 

    They made the journey, however; but now he wonders why. I asked him, “Ibrahim, if you had known in Syria what you know now, would you have still made the trip?”

    “No!” he exclaimed. “I would rather be even in Sudan right now (with all its civil war) than here in this camp. See that box behind me?” as he points to a white shipping container sitting on the edge of the camp. “This camp is like that box for us. We are closed up in a box and cannot get out.”

    I moved the conversation to his children and he called for his youngest, 3-year-old Razan, a beautiful daughter with blond hair and chubby cheeks. “See this?” he asked and shows me some scars on her tummy.

    Greece, Ibrahim, Razan and Sadsa, Aug. 2016 (1)
    Ibrahim with 3-year-old Razan.

    These are injuries that occurred recently during a severe untreated asthma attack as she was struggling to gain breath. They had no access to her inhalers that she used in Syria. I was able to give him some information on how to treat her asthma and things to avoid in the camp.

    At the clinic, Ibrahim was grateful to receive a rescue inhaler for Razan. It was a small but important thing we could do for our neighbor here in Diavata, and we know it will make a difference for this family as they wait for their future to begin.

    For these refugees, whose futures are uncertain, you are providing a bright spot. This is what being a humanitarian is all about, demonstrating love to a neighbor in need. Because of your donations, medical teams like the one dispatched to Greece can make a profound difference in the lives of the world's most vulnerable.