All around me there is mist settling between the mountains that seem to go on for miles. Behind me, the sky has become dark and the quiet chatter of the villagers is punctuated by sudden bursts of thunder. Directly in front of me is a terrified 5 year old boy sitting on his father’s lap with a 2cm gash in his cheek. I am back in the village of Ihula with our Mobile Clinic.
I am kneeling in the dirt, preparing everything to stitch the boys face. As I approach the father and son with a syringe of lidocaine (freezing), I explain in my best (read: terrible!) swahili that I am sorry, this will hurt and he has to hold his son VERY tight. As I inject, the boy manages to get a leg free and makes contact with my shoulder and then my shin. “Nice try kid” I think to myself, “I already got you. In a minute you’ll feel nothing and you’ll thank me”. An elderly local woman pitches in her 2 hands to hold the boy’s legs. Kneeling again, I get to work. Only 3 stitches in the end. He’ll come back next week to get them out.
I move back to check on the 19 month old boy with severe burns. He had been scalded with hot water 4 days before. His right side, about 15% of his body, had been burned. As I have sometimes seen in Canada, his mother had applied toothpaste to his burns. They had become infected and he now had fever and pneumonia. We set up IV fluids and gave him antibiotics and painkillers. I then spent the next half hour sitting on a dirt floor, slowly cleaning and removing the thick layer of tootpaste. He lay there listlessly, a combination of the painkiller and his serious infection. We will have to bring this patient and his mother to the hospital.
Other than the mobile clinic once a week, the closest health care to Ihula is a minimum 4-5 hour walk away. This is why Médecins Sans Frontières is building a health post here, so that this population can have permanent access to free health care 24/7.
We walked through the village to visit the health post that is almost completed. On the way there, one of our Congolese staff nurses explained that Ihula had once been a very large village. Conflict had driven much of the population further into the hills. As we stood looking at the large wooden structure that would soon see women delivering babies, children treated for malnutrition and people treated for various ailments, our nurse explained that we were looking at history. Health care had never been this accessible in this region.
I will be back in Ihula in a few weeks. The child with the burn is doing well in our hospital, and I will very likely bring him back home to Ihula on my next visit. We may even see our first few patients in the health post by then.