Tales of Adventure 2nd-Place Winner: Mission to the Maasai by Jeanne Hess

By Guest Contributor December 15, 2014 14:00

 This story was the second-place winner in our Winter 2014-’15 Tales of Adventure Contest, which asked FAN readers to write about a real-life adventure. An 83-year-old retired registered nurse, Jeanne Hess shares the story of her 1995 trip to Tanzania as part of a volunteer medical team charged with setting up a temporary walk-in clinic for the area’s Maasai natives. “The author’s heartbreaking yet inspiring story captured my attention with her detailed description of the Maasai and how utterly in need they were,” says judge Nancy Abbott. “Inspirational and meaningful.”


By Jeanne Hess

“As the word gets out into Maasai country, our clinic lines get longer and longer. By word of mouth, the news is out that white men at Kisongo have magic medicine. We saw 140 people today and the line was still there when we closed the door. It is very hard for all of us when they beg to be seen after walking so many miles.”

An excerpt from my journal – a paragraph from an experience in rural Tanzania that changed my whole concept of health care and made me take a good look at my 35-year nursing career.

In August of 1995, I was part of a volunteer medical team sent to Kisongo, Tanzania, to conduct a temporary walk-in clinic for the Maasai of that area, while a permanent cement block building was constructed 100 yards away along the grassy track.

We arrived with what supplies and medicines we could carry in our suitcases and moved into an abandoned school building. Walls were whitewashed, rough partitions were set up, supplies were sorted and stacked against the walls, translators were called in, and we opened the doors.

They came; first a few, then dozens, then hundreds – tall, stately men wrapped in blankets of red stripes and plaids, women with shorn heads, wrapped in bright-colored kangas and wearing tiers of elaborate beaded jewelry around their necks.

They brought their dehydrated babies, their coughing children, and their frail elderly. They waited patiently throughout the long, sunny days for their number to be called, and when sheer volume forced us to abandon the number system and triage for only the mothers with sick babies and the most seriously ill, the waiting patients would part and select those whom they felt should be seen, then methodically resume their places in line.

massai-girls-FN00043With only their basic skills and instincts to guide them, the doctors would ask through an interpreter: “Where does it hurt?”  “How long has it hurt?” “Can you show me?” No lab, no X-rays, no CAT scans or MRI. “Take a deep breath.” “Let me listen.” No detailed history from a people whose calendar is the moon and the stars and the seasons of harvest. “I need a urine specimen. Please take this plastic baggie and go out into the bushes, then bring it back to me.”

Minor surgery? No problem. Someone brought along a suitcase full of instruments, rejects from a hospital operating room thousands of miles away, out of which we were able to salvage a few surgical sets. Each day we would wash them with soap and water, hauled uphill from camp in buckets; wrap them in disposable surgical towels (again, cast off from a distant surgical unit, washed by hand and dried in the sun); and then place the packs in a pressure-cooker sterilizer over the cook’s charcoal fire.

With the aid of a long stick, Mrs. Otieno has walked many miles on an abscessed foot to get to the clinic. When the wound has been cleaned and compactly bandaged, she sets out to walk back home again. “How far?” I ask. “Very far.”  Post-surgery checkup? Not likely.

Malaria, upper respiratory infections, infant dehydration and advanced arthritis in all forms became all too familiar. Small amounts of medications and retail packet samples were carefully rationed, but were never quite enough.  A very select, limited amount of antibiotics was available, and the response of previously unexposed bacteria was almost immediate. For some, our simple remedies were a miracle. If you can imagine living with a malarial headache for most of your life and then someone gives you two Tylenol and the headache disappears – that is a miracle.

Late one afternoon, an apparently very ill young woman was helped into a small cubicle where she collapsed onto a rickety three-legged stool and mutely appealed to the young doctor for help. Her eyes were dull and lifeless with pain and suffering. Her three young children held onto her skirts, terrified of the unfamiliar surroundings and strange humans with white skins and babbling voices. An examination, a consultation and a diagnosis: anthrax, a disease unknown to our American-trained doctors at that time, but recognized as fatal in this remote corner of the world.


Jeanne and friends in Tanzania

The goal of our mission to Kisongo was twofold: to offer immediate help and to acquaint the peoples of the area with the new clinic, which would be left in charge of a capable young African doctor and his staff.

One day, that doctor will have preventive health programs, immunizations, family planning and health education for schoolchildren. But even today, in 2014, emergency medicine is basically an unknown philosophy in rural Tanzania. There are no ambulances and no hospital emergency rooms.

If a Maasai becomes ill, he will wait two or three days to see if he feels better. If not, he will then go to his local village medicine man to buy herbs, or perhaps receive a treatment – small razor-blade cuts over the affected area which are then rubbed with salt.

If he still does not recover from his illness, he may think about visiting the nearest doctor – perhaps a walk of several days. The elderly, the weak, or the sick baby may die before the destination is reached, but to the Maasai, illness and death are but a part of the cycle of life and they will say, “Oh, that is just the way it is.”

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine
By Guest Contributor December 15, 2014 14:00
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