Medical Needs in the Congo

A Post-Thanksgiving Reflection

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As many of you know, I recently returned from an amazing journey to the Congo.  Along with my colleagues Sandra Gourdet, Global Ministries Area Executive for Africa; Dr. Eyamba Bokamba, Member of our WoC Advisory Committee; and Susan Sanders, Director of One Great Hour of Sharing for the United Church of Christ, we traveled to both the Republic of the Congo (Congo Brazzaville) and to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo Kinshasa), formerly known as Zaire.  One does not venture mindlessly off on such journeys.  Nor does one come home, dare I surmise, having not become more mindful of what life looks, smells, sounds and feels like to others so seemingly far away.

We spent an entire day in Bolenge, a village not far from Mbandaka, the capital city of the Equatorial Province in the DRC.  Mbandaka is where the 10th Community of the Disciples of Christ in the Congo is located, our historic mission site.  The village of Bolenge is a quick drive from the city and is the site of many more of our historic Disciples missions in the region, including a hospital, a highly reputable high school, a malnutrition clinic and the church community itself.  If you have been a life-long Disciple, chances are you have grown up hearing about Bolenge; I know I did.  

So to walk the ground of Bolenge was almost surreal.  The hospital had burnt down several years ago and I vividly recall responding to this devastating news. WoC and OGHS both channeled resources through Global Ministries to help the destroyed hospital rebuild.  Thanks to entirely local efforts, the pediatric ward has indeed been re-erected and I was able to walk through its halls and rooms.  In a country like the DRC, where Dr. Bill Clemmer of IMA World Health told us that there are 515 health districts in total and an average of only one hospital per district and perhaps some 15-20 clinics, a hospital burning down is beyond distressing.  Among those few hospitals, there is, on average, one doctor per 70-80,000 people in the DRC.  Luckily, Bolenge has a number of doctors on staff although they are, not surprisingly, overworked and severely underpaid.  

Often performing surgeries and other medical procedures in the dark because there is no power and the electrical generator is currently not working, just last week they told me they did a C-section by flashlight.  

I wish I could say that this was atypical, but such is the state of medical affairs the country-over.  Hospitals and clinics in the DRC work under these kinds of conditions each and every day.  In the midst of the realities of poverty, dysfunctional government, and a lack of resources, the folks at Bolenge Hospital still have to find a way to respond to the overwhelming health needs of their community.  And they do it one day, one case, one life at a time.  

Most of the health needs we heard about and saw are things that are preventable.  Malaria is a huge issue.  Blood transfusions are needed but there is no blood bank.  HIV/AIDS is spreading more rampantly.  Malnutrition is a terrible problem, caused by poverty, a lack of clean, accessible water, and a lack of protein in their diet.  Water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid are also widespread.  Another large medical problem in the DRC is maternal mortality.  The number of women dying during or right after childbirth is alarming, many of them experiencing post-partum hemorrhaging.   Or, as is often the case, a woman begins labor but is hours away from a hospital or a clinic and dies on her way.  Add to that the economic reality that most people in the Congo make $1 a day but the average hospital visit (Congolese hospitals work on a fee-for-service basis) is $3.  If you’re among the lucky ones who are able to pay for the visit, you find yourself in the awful predicament of having covered the costs of your diagnosis but are then usually unable to pay for the treatment and the medicines.  Clinics, which are relatively less expensive, also operate on a fee-for-service basis and are often unable to provide people with the medicines they actually need to become well.  

It was clear to me that the Bolenge Hospital staff and the Medical Department of the Disciples of Christ Community in the Congo are committed to care for the people of the Bolenge and Mbandaka and surrounding districts as best they can.  I do not envy their task and can hardly imagine working under the conditions they have to face.  

As I embarked the transatlantic flight back home a few days after my visit to Bolenge, I began to feel a bit queasy myself.  For the next eight hours I sipped only ginger ale; I could feel myself coming down with something.  Luckily, I made it back home before I fully fell ill.  What was first thought to be malaria turned out, by the grace of God, to be a severe case of gastroenteritis.  I missed Thanksgiving.  I missed the Macy’s Day Parade.  I missed turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy.  I missed playing with my beloved nieces and nephew.  I missed my family’s annual Christmas exchange dinner the next night.  I missed the whole stinkin’ holiday.  

But I was home.  And the moment I knew I was really sick, I was able to pick up a phone, call my doctor and figure out what to do.  I was immediately sent to the hospital for tests. I was then sent to an infectious disease doctor.  I was then sent for more blood work in an outpatient lab.  I was driven home by my father and taken care of by my family who surrounded me with Gatorade, love, blankets and prayers.  And I knew my doctor was only a phone call away; the hospital only a drive away; one of the world’s best medical institutions in the world, The Cleveland Clinic, a mere half an hour away.  

My body was far from the DRC.  But my heart ached for them knowing that what turned out to be a nasty stomach virus for me might have easily killed one of my new Congolese friends.

In some ways, this was the most authentic Thanksgiving I have ever had.  

If you are interested in reading more about the Bolenge Hospital, please visit http://globalministries.org/africa/projects/bolenge-hospital.html?log-event=sp2f-view-item&nid=103374912.  To support the tremendous medical needs in the Congo, click here.  Thank you so much!