Tales from the Word Tailor-Blog

Global Healer

posted Jul 25, 2012, 8:49 AM by wordtailor@aol.com   [ updated Jul 27, 2012, 9:01 AM ]


The singer/songwriter, Leonard Cohen, writes of "heroes in the seaweed."  I interpret his words to mean that everyday heroes abound, we need only discover them. I was fortunate to encounter one during a routine sonography exam.   Here is Barbara Rosenberg's tale:

Physicians admired her technical skills, patients her kind and considerate care.  A gifted sonographer; all agreed that Barbara Rosenberg was destined to go far.  But, neither Rosenberg nor those who predicted her positive professional trajectory could ever have imagined just how far!

Characteristically, the path she ultimately followed began with an act of kindness.  In 1980, when the 40-something Rochester, NY native was but a rookie sonographer in Rochester General Hospital’s Ultrasound unit ,a new hire, Kathy Velekkakan, noted her extraordinary skills and asked if she would be willing to mentor her.  Rosenberg readily agreed.  Initially, Rosenberg assumed the role of teacher and Velekkakan that of student, but the two quickly became hard and fast friends.

Not long after, Velekkakan left Rochester General to work in a private Ob-Gyn practice.  While their professional paths diverged, their friendship did not falter.

Eighteen years after their initial meeting, Velekkakan approached Rosenberg again. “How would you like to go to Africa?” she asked.  But Velekkakan was not proposing a fun-in-the-sun-let’s-go-see-the-wild-animals safari.  She had something altogether different in mind.

Velekkakan’s passion for ultrasound was rivaled only by her interest in Africa.  Through her husband’s friend, Velekkakan first learned of the Coptic Church and the refugee hospital it operated in Nairobi, Kenya.  The hospital, it seems, was fortunate to have had an ultrasound machine donated to them.  However, no one in the hospital knew how to use it!

 For Velekkakan, the marriage of ultrasound and Africa was too enticing to resist.  She immediately volunteered to train the staff and care for patients.  Yet she knew her plan lacked something vital to its success -- Rosenberg.  Tentatively, she pitched the idea to her.  “Awesome!” “Fantastic!” came Rosenberg’s instant response.  Despite her immediate acceptance of the plan, however, nearly a full year would pass before Rosenberg would set foot in Kenya.

Receiving no monetary compensation and using her accumulated vacation days in order to take time off from work, Rosenberg arrived in Kenya in 1999.  “I stayed in the guest quarters of a bishop’s house, in a suburb of Nairobi, Kenya.  It was my first experience living in much more basic living conditions.  And I was living in ‘luxury’ compared to others!” she said, her wry smile underscoring the incongruity between her description and her experienced reality.   

Over a three week period, Rosenberg conducted seminars at the hospital on sonography and instructed surgeons and Ob-Gyn doctors in the proper use of ultrasound equipment.  She also cared for patients from a profusion of nationalities; there were refugees from Burundi, Somalia, as well as the Sudan.  While their diverse backgrounds proved to be culturally enriching, it was frustrating for Rosenberg as well because she and her patients did not share a common language. 

With interpreters serving as linguistic intermediaries, Rosenberg questioned and cared for her patients, the majority of whom were in desperate need of medical attention by the time she saw them.  Despite their inability to converse, many expressed their desire to stay in touch with Rosenberg.  “Some would physically hold on to me – it was quite unsettling,” she recalled.

Rosenberg returned to Africa a second time, in 2001, this time to a teaching hospital run by nuns belonging to the Medical Missionaries of Mary, in Kabanga, Western Tanzania. Housed in a private ward of the hospital, she took her meals with the nuns and feasted on freshly-baked bread and marmalade prepared by the local women.  Her living conditions had improved considerably!

“There was electricity, so I was able to bring my hair dryer,” Rosenberg said with barely disguised glee.  “But, even though I had water, in order to bathe I had to heat the water and then take a bucket and pour it over myself.  I missed taking a shower, she admitted.”

 There was also the matter of the little insects.  “The climate was very humid, and if you hung your clothes out to dry these little flies would lay eggs in your clothes and then the insects would get into your skin,” she said, grimacing in retrospect.

But these discomforts paled in comparison to what the local populace endured.  Consider the fact that the hospital had no laboratories.  Patients were treated without full knowledge of their malady in the hope that they would somehow heal.  Often, the sick put their trust in unscrupulous “snake oil” salesmen who hawked their wares in the open-air market. 

“If I found a fatal finding (sign of terminal illness) in a patient, the family would be overjoyed,” Rosenberg said.  Initially, Rosenberg was startled by this reaction but she later learned that in Kabanga it is illegal to transport a dead body from place to place by bicycle.  Families, therefore, were relieved to know that they could take the patient home before he/she died.  “Otherwise, Rosenberg explained, “the family would become bankrupt if they would have to rent a truck in order to transport their dead relative home.”

Though she savored freshly-baked bread, Rosenberg also fed upon a steady diet of frustration.  “What was most frustrating,” she said, “was seeing these kids come in with curable diseases, like Burkitts Lymphoma, a cancer that afflicts children.”  Rosenberg explained that she would see patients suffering from the disease because their parents could not afford the requisite 9-10 treatments, at a cost of $3.50 per treatment.  They would, therefore, discontinue treatment once the child’s symptoms appeared to have improved.

But there were fun times too.  “I always managed to fit in some fun,” Rosenberg, cheerfully added.  For Rosenberg, fun meant almost climbing to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro – she just didn’t have enough time to make it all the way.  Fun was swimming in Lake Tanganyika, in Western Tanzania, right near Jane Goodall’s famous gorilla sanctuary.

And fun meant attending the wedding of an African acquaintance where warm unpasteurized milk, straight from the cow, was served.  “I had to drink it,” she said “so as not to insult my hosts.  However, the goat meat, spit-roasted in honor of the occasion, was too tough to swallow.”  Desperately looking around the table she caught the eye of one of her colleagues who motioned to her to deposit the half-eaten morsels in her pocket.  Grateful for the advice, Rosenberg discreetly placed the goat meat in her pocket. 

After the celebration, to her great consternation, a pack of growling mangy-looking dogs, attracted to the aroma of freshly-roasted meat, followed her all the way back to the clinic!

In contemplating her next trip, Rosenberg knows full well that scenes of poverty and illness will far outweigh frivolity.  Why then did she agree to take on such an emotionally taxing undertaking?

“I never thought of myself as adventurous,” the soft-spoken Rosenberg said.  “I just know that with my ultrasound skills I can do so much to help.  I find it to be a totally eye-opening, life-changing experience.  It’s so important to see different cultures, to see how other people live.”  



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