Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Panzi Hospital

Despite Congo being Congo, I've actually had quite a productive few days...

On my first full work day, after some ex-hotel biscuits for breakfast and a quick early morning walk, I was picked up by 2 Panzi staff members, to take me on the half hour drive there. One of the men is the Administrator at the University, and the other one, in particular, is Kabuto, the Nursing Director (who I've been in email contact with for the last 8 months). He'd actually shown me the night before (to my surprise) the detailed program he's organised for me during my stay here... which involves presentations at the hospital and university, meeting the directors / administrators / teachers / doctors, meeting with the Panzi Foundation, taking tours of the university and the hospital, etc... lining up quite a busy week and a half... which is exactly what I was hoping for, to make the most of my brief time here.

Despite being a public holiday in Congo ('Parents' Day'!!), he'd organised to take me on a very formal tour around the whole Panzi Hospital that morning.

Now I can't even begin to try and explain what the traffic and roads here are like. Imagine being in a dirty blender, perhaps... jolted around till you feel like you have a milkshake brain... speeding over rocks and potholes to overtake cars or motorbikes, whilst beeping to warn trudging, noisy, colorful crowds of pedestrians leaping out of the way, and narrowly avoiding toppling over the steep cliff-like side of the road itself... it's an adrenaline rush, for which I frequently have to force myself to look out the side window instead of the front. Cars and trucks don't use indicators, they don't wait on the narrow roads for oncoming vehicles to pass first before ramming themselves into the car in front to make them move... causing all sorts blaring horn noise, chaos and congestion. Were it not for being a passenger, I would be highly amused at the impatience (but yet relative lack of road rage, anger and accidents) displayed.

And the dust, the dust... it's swirling in a constant haze everywhere, and settles in a fine sheen on anything temporarily immobile, and layers like thick icing on everything permanent. Every breath you take, the dust catches and chokes... Some buildings were built white, and are now a consistent tan colour. It's ironic, then, that a city covered in dust has absolutely no water to settle it! However whatever the frustrations, it's better than being here during the wet season...

This whole time, I've been treated like a VIP - introduced to everyone (senior doctors, officials), escorted by a group of various senior hospital staff members everywhere, given an office, asked to important meetings and ceremonies, given special meals... much to my surprise! I've never been in Congo in this capacity before... and am constantly comparing my current experience to that of when I was a child here. Even the French needed is different... I never had to learn any medical terminology when I was a child here!
The hospital is far better-equipped than I expected... however it's still nowhere near the standards of Australian hospitals, in terms of resources and capabilities. Unlike (most) Australian hospitals, which are built in several-storey buildings and surrounded by other skyscrapers and roads, Panzi is comprised of many separate buildings (wards, offices, etc), connected by paths, winding through beautiful gardens, and decorated by patients relaxing, dressed in colorful materials.

One of our first stops was the Paediatric Ward. We walked in so they could introduce me, and I casually glanced quickly around the tiny room, taking in the 2 beds, each of which held 3 very ill infants... until my eyes rested on where the doctor was currently working... a baby who was not breathing, and he was trying to resuscitate... while he casually chatted to us. I was in shock... the management was so different to the urgent, stressed reactions to a non-breathing baby that I'm used to in Australia. Immediately my mind jumped to trying to work out what was going on, the story, the symptoms, the treatment... and I got involved... after ascertaining that the doctors there didn't mind me sticking my nose in. Despite trying to resuscitate (manually) for an hour, with our hope waning as the minutes ticked by, the 7-day-old bub's heart came to rest. I still don't think I've processed all of it for myself... I can't quite comprehend the differences - even though the doctors were concerned and worked hard (I can't fault their efforts), there was simply nothing further that could be done, given the equipment and resources they had, and the casual reaction to his death reinforced to me just how common an occurrence this is here. As a mother, the overwhelming powerlessness in trying to revive this dear son of another mother was acute and devastating, because however 'common', it's no less tragic.

The rest of the tour was interesting... particularly because of my experience of hospitals in Australia, and comparing the difference in resources. Here, when a patient presents to the 'Emergency Department', they have to first pay to see a nurse, who triages them. They then have to pay again to see the Generalist Doctor, who then may send them off to a Specialist Doctor or to have further tests - all of which cost the patient. Makes you reconsider the sheer number (and expense) of tests we order in Australia every day on many patients, which are completely unnecessary.

There is comparatively also a lack of privacy for the patients, through no fault of the hospital's... there aren't enough separate rooms for each patient, so they all room together, beds lined up beside each other... catheters inserted or wounds dressed without any curtains... women labouring with the doors wide open...

There's a ward dedicated to malnourished children. Upon entering and learning the treatment and management plan for such patients, I couldn't help being engulfed by the unfairness of the situation... these kids have no choice, they have nothing to eat, and waste away, physically and mentally. No opportunities to "reach their full potential" like I can offer my Lucy in Australia. They didn't ask for that, nor do they deserve it. I compared to my recent months on the paediatric ward in Hobart, where we had similar re-feeding programs for teenagers with eating disorders...

We then visited the wards filled with women who have been victims of sexual violence... women with fistulae and other injuries, inflicted by men who brandish rape as a weapon of war. I spoke to a few of the women, and it is not a mere cliche when I say there was sadness in their eyes.

So much to take in... and, despite my upbringing here, no matter how hard I try to put myself in their shoes, or how much of the languages I know, or even how much I think I'm 'roughing' it, I will NEVER know what it's truly like living here in this poverty, as a citizen of this country.


  1. Great blog Em, sounds incredibly intense and I can imagine you're not processing much at the minute. Really appreciate your blogs! hugx

  2. Thankyou Emily. Well worth reading.

  3. Thank you beautiful, another good entry!

  4. Em, I've finally caught up on your entries! I hope that we can be a support for you when you return to Tas as you will have so many experiences, like the ones described, to process. Praying for you. xo

  5. wow that all sounds so amazing.
    What an incredible experience you are having and hopefully your journey will bring some light for the people there.
    Keep safe and i look forward to reading more of yr news.