It’s the smiles that stick with you long after you leave. It’s the children waving and yelling with excitement to see you. It’s the sore feeling deep in your muscles after a hard day’s work. It’s knowing one word in the native language because you heard it over and over again: erokamano, which is Luo for thank you.
These things are a large part of why I support and promote the mission of Village Life Outreach Project, Inc. As a member of the Village Life health brigades, I have traveled a third of the way around the world to east Africa each October for the last several years to help run field clinics in Tanzanian villages.
Village Life Outreach Project is a Cincinnati-based non-profit organization that works to improve conditions of life, health, and education in three impoverished villages in western Tanzania. The group collaborates with village leaders to identify the most pressing problems faced in those villages. Since 2004, the organization has launched a school lunch program, improved villager access to clean water, built a health center, educated villagers on preventive health care, and treated hundreds of people who have no access to medical care other than what is provided during Village Life’s annual health brigades.
Trial by fire
I first traveled to rural Tanzania with Village Life in 2009 during my final year of pharmacy school. I had no preceptor, no prior experience, and no one else to rely on with any background in pharmacy. It was overwhelming. With only 1 day to organize and prepare, I pulled together what roughly passed for a field clinic pharmacy. Operating out of three suitcases and referencing only a notebook of handwritten med guides, the tireless support of many of the other volunteers allowed us to provide treatment and patient counseling to several hundred villagers over the course of four field clinics. It was a trial by fire and it was the best learning experience I had during the course of my pharmacy education. Since then I have worked with Village Life leaders and volunteers to streamline pharmacy operations through formulary improvements, treatment protocols for the most common diseases we treat, and the use of compartmentalized carts to keep medications organized and accessible.
Regardless of how efficient I try to make things, there is no getting around the challenges of filling approximately 300 prescriptions a day without the use of any kind of computer or automation. Since we simply do not have resources to provide detailed written instructions for each medication and the fact that there are low levels of literacy in the villages, each patient must be thoroughly counseled on each medication they receive. These counseling sessions can only occur through the use of translators, who must be fluent in three different languages: English, Swahili, and the native language of the Luo. On the plus side, I never have to deal with insurance.
Multiple collaborative efforts
One of the best parts of field clinics is the partnerships. In addition to running a crude dispensary, my clinical skills are honed and sharpened by working closely with the physicians, nurse practitioners, and nurses who provide care to the villagers. We collaborate often about appropriate treatment regimens for unique cases, especially given the limitations of our formulary. As an organization, we strive to cultivate partnerships within the villages by working with their committee members to make each field clinic as successful as possible. Village Life also partners with a sister organization in Tanzania called the Shirati, Health, Education, and Development Foundation to ensure that our efforts extend beyond what we can accomplish in our 2 weeks trips.
Back home, I am fortunate to have formed a partnership with a local independent pharmacy, Hocks Pharmacy, which helps us procure our supplies at low cost. Village Life has also enjoyed support from many sponsors, not the least of which is my alma mater, the University of Cincinnati College of Pharmacy. I look forward to partnering with the college to offer this unique experience to students as part of their experiential training.
Volunteer however you can
Not everyone is given this remarkable opportunity to fly across the globe to help provide lifesaving medications to those in desperate need. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able to participate in this truly life altering experience on multiple occasions I am endlessly grateful to my mangers and schedulers at Walgreens who have always been supportive of what I do by granting me the time off each year to make the journey.
Not everyone can drop everything for 2 weeks out of the year to travel long distances and ply his or her trade under harsh conditions with no compensation. Not everyone should. For those who are not able to do this, I encourage everyone to get involved where ever and however they can. There are countless opportunities to be found right where you live to help people in your area or across the globe. No matter how small or how big your effort, there is always someone who will be grateful, someone who will say erokamano.
To learn more about Village Life, visit www.villagelifeoutreach.org.
Theresa Nolte, PharmD, is a Floater Pharmacist at Walgreens in Dayton, OH.