From Vacaville to Africa, Central America to Nepal, NorthBay Center for Primary Care Nurse Practitioners Kathy LeFevre, right, and Susan Rosten can say first-hand that people have the same needs across the world. Both have left the comfort of home to provide medical care in some of the most dangerous locations on earth.
“Our circumstances may be different but every mother is grateful when her child is helped,” says Susan. Susan and her husband, Optometrist John Rosten, began volunteering on foreign medical missions in 2000. They joined Medical Ministry International for an eye-related trip to La Esperanza, Honduras, and took their two teenagers along.
In the course of 10 days the group saw 5,000 patients. People walked for miles to reach the free clinic and undergo screening for eye disorders and vision problems. Surgeons performed cataract surgeries and other volunteers gave out eyeglasses.
“We saw the potential for helping others and knew we would do more,” Susan says.
Their next vision screening trip was with a small church group that traveled to Albania – to an area so remote that water was delivered by horse-drawn cart.
“Giving a pair of eyeglasses to someone who can’t see makes a lasting difference in their life,” Susan says. “Curing minor health problems before they become major makes you realize how a lack of resources affects health.”
The Dixon couple have also made two trips to Nepal. Their eight-person group included four medical and four vision professionals. They traveled to communities with no services or access to health care.
“We cared for patients who in our country would be in an intensive care unit,” Susan says. “In Nepal, they carry on as best they can.”
On their first trip, John screened the vision of patients in a leprosy hospital. On their second trip, he taught the eye-screening techniques to interns at the hospital. The second trip took them even deeper into the Himalayas. A four-hour horseback ride into the mountains allowed the group to deliver supplies, eyeglasses and care to people who rarely meet outsiders, much less Americans.
In 2007, the Rostens traveled to Njoro, Kenya, where it takes a month’s wages to be seen by a doctor.
“When word of a free clinic gets out, the people come,” Susan says. “In six clinic days we saw about 2,200 patients.”
Among those patients were grandmothers raising six to eight kids, “giving new meaning to the term ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’” she says.
Last year, John traveled to Rwanda, and Susan hopes to join him on a return trip.
“I have so much compassion for those struggling with life’s circumstances,” Susan adds. “Each trip I return from leaves me feeling like I’ve gained much more than I’ve given.”
Kathy LeFevre has volunteered both near and far for more than a generation. Fresh from nurse practitioner school, she joined the Peace Corps in 1980, spending two years working with emergency room nurses and the Catholic Relief Fund in North Yemen.
Since that time, Kathy has traveled on eight medical missions, each three to four months long, with Doctors Without Borders. She loves the challenges that come with working in the Third World.
“To meet people and help in dire situations humbles you,” she says of her travels. “No matter where I go, the people are so lovely and so appreciative of your attention.”
She has been to some of the most dangerous countries in the world, including the rebel area of Darfur (see diary excerpts beginning on page 16) and Zimbabwe, where she managed a small village HIV clinic. The clinic treated 100 new cases a month – mostly young women ages 20 to 30.
In Zimbabwe, she worked in concert with the public health system, which performed chest x-rays to diagnose TB. The local system cared for theTB patients, but those who had TB and HIV were sent to Kathy’s clinic.
“When I arrived, I found we had many case files, but few people returning for treatment,” she says. “So I began a home visit program, where I sent a driver out to pick up the ‘no shows.’” This also helped her document the hard facts of life – many people didn’t return simply because they had died.
“This type of volunteering tests your strength,” Kathy says. “I like challenges and I like fixing things. If you have a patient with a broken leg and no casting material what do you do? You find another solution.”
Kathy is planning her next medical journey for the end of the year. She’ll go wherever Doctors Without Borders sends her. Unfortunately, she says, it won’t be Darfur, which has banned Americans.
At home, she has been a Meals on Wheels volunteer for nine years. She’s also a Red Cross volunteer, tracking replacement medications for people hospitalized following home fires.
“We have so much in this country,” Kathy says. “It’s so rewarding to give something back.”
A Darfur Diary
Nurse Practitioner Kathy LeFevre spent three months in the Sudan helping care for Darfur refugees in 2004. The following is an excerpt from a diary she sent to her NorthBay co-workers.
I’m working in East Darfur at feeding stations in a government area as well as a Sudanese Liberation Army rebel area. I don’t have problems traveling between the two. They both want us here to care for the displaced people. We are setting up two weekly feeding centers, one out-patient department and a small eight bed in-patient department.
We are seeing the war wounded – gunshot wounds and stabbings by the Janjaweed (JJ) militia. All we can do is prevent infections and apply dressings. There is no surgery and we have minimal services here.
We have a new Dutch doctor who is doing small surgeries. The rebels have their own special treatment for removing bullets from the body. They slice the belly of a frog and place it over the bullet area and wrap it. In two days, the bullet is sucked out. It works – I actually saw a frog with a bullet in its belly. I couldn’t believe it. But who am I to tell them not to do this when they are wearing the AK47s?
I’m still seeing war injured at one of the villages I work in. One woman was kidnapped for three days by the JJs, but she’s not talking about the experience. The people here are very stoic – they never scream out in pain, but just quietly make faces.
Recently we had a scary incident outside our compound. Gunshots were heard, so we ran inside and hid under the bed. Next the military came to our door and asked us to care for some injured people. One young woman was shot in the chest and we couldn’t save her. Another young man was shot in the leg and I was able to get the bullet out.
I think you get into a job like this because every day is different and you never know what to expect. Some days you make a kid smile and laugh and it’s all worth it.
The safety and security of their volunteers is of the utmost importance to Doctors Without Borders. Without electricity, the Darfur volunteers used a satellite phone to call in to the home base every day. Computers were powered with car batteries or generators.