By Anne Goebel, RN, Nurse Wellness Coordinator for Stamford Health at New Canaan YMCA
I recently returned from a trip to Nairobi, Kenya with a team of 9. The YMCA partners with FAFU, a school with 300 students in the slum in Kibera, which is the size of Central Park and home to 1 million inhabitants. A home is an 8x10 room with an old sofa, a bench, some cloths on the floor for a makeshift bed, and a floor-to-ceiling pile of belongings shared among 5-6 people. Kibera has no running water, plumbing, and very limited electricity. Our mission? To build a playground in this school that served students from pre-school through 8th grade. This is my story.
As we entered the slum, I was overwhelmed initially by the smell of garbage and waste in the street. Fortunately, I was able to work in the health office every day with children and staff, and I used medical supplies donated by Stamford Hospital. As a former school nurse, I witnessed all the usual complaints: cuts and sprains, playground injuries like splinters, GI distress, respiratory illness, headaches, sore throats, and skin rashes to name a few. But the biggest difference was the extreme malnutrition and dehydration. The school serves children a cup of porridge mid-morning and a lunch in the afternoon consisting of beans and ugali (cornmeal and flour) with a cup of water. This is the only meal most children will have. Diets have little to no meat, fruits, or vegetables, and clean drinking water is limited.
Kiberia has essentially no health care except vaccinations. Hand washing also doesn’t exist due to the lack of running water. The school also uses medications and treatments that have been donated, and I found that every child that had a sore throat was treated with antibiotics. I asked myself, “How could I possibly teach them not to medicate every child this way?”
At school, I was asked to examine Melvin, a 3-year-old boy with “breathing problems” and continuous coughing, for which he was treated with antibiotics all his life. On exam, his lungs were clear and he was in no respiratory distress. At the school, I met his mother who told me that she lights a small tin of charcoal to cook some food. Without ventilation in the home, the charcoal was likely a significant irritant for Melvin. We made a plan to stop the antibiotics, which were most definitely causing GI issues, and to cook the food outside in the alley.
The most wonderful awareness I came away with is how happy the children and their teachers are. They are smart, joyful, loving and hopeful. They work very hard at school because they know an education will make their life better. They sing, dance, put on plays, recite poetry and very often there is a reference to God. I came away from this experience hoping to make a small difference in their lives, but I found I was the one who received the bounty.
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