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Bush whacked: African adventures

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March 20, 2013 - The 4-passenger Cessna plane Elizabeth McGhee flew in Kenya in February was the same model as the plane she owns and has flown in Michigan.

However, the difference between the two planes is that she successfully landed the one in Kenya— even after power had been cut to the engine— while the other ended up on its roof on Sunday.

"I was just taxiing at Pontiac Airport and the plane flipped over, but we were fine," said McGhee, a longtime pilot, veterinarian and Brandon Township wife, mother of nine and grandmother of three. "It was a mechanical issue, I'm just happy no other planes or fuel trucks were around. It was a walk away thing. God was telling me I needed a bigger plane."

McGhee's obsession with flying, as well as with medical mission work, led her to Kenya and Uganda last month. The adventure, which began Feb. 9 and ended March 4, was just another in a series of journeys to Africa over the course of the last 15 years. Most of her trips are taken on behalf of Mercy and Truth Medical Missions.

On this particular trip, McGhee was joined by Arkansas doctor Bill Smock, who she had traveled with on medical mission trips twice previously. Smock is involved with WaterStep, an organization that works to help make water safe to drink in underdeveloped countries.

The three primary goals of McGhee and Smock on this trip were to take a 2-and-a-half week tropical medicine course in Uganda, support their friend Wesley Korir in his election bid for a seat on the Kenyan Parliament, and to obtain their Kenyan private pilot licenses.

McGhee and Smock arrived in Nairobi Feb. 10, ready to become African "bush pilots," able to fly in a country that lacks flight sophistication.

"They don't have the air traffic control we have, or the navigational systems," noted McGhee. "If you crash and your radar goes off, who knows if they find you. The only navigational chart I could find showing the terrain was printed in 1967." She adds with a laugh, "Not much has changed… If they have navigational systems and they break, they don't fix them. There are maybe 20 paved airports in all of Kenya."

Part of the test, she explained, involved finding an airstrip by a peninsula, and doing a fly over and runway inspection to ensure there were "no rocks, or elephants, or surprises." Having done this, the instructor informed her that she was going to land. Then, with the airstrip behind the plane, he reached over and turned off the engine.

"He said, 'You have to know this, it's part of bush flying,'" said McGhee. "So I have to turn the plane around 180 degrees, 500 feet or so above the ground and land the plane with no engine."

She did so, drawing on her previous experience from using a flight simulator to do the same exercise.

After McGhee landed, it was Smock's turn. McGhee exited the plane, telling him and the instructor she would record Smock's flight with her iPad. What happened next caused her a bit more trepidation. As she stood alone "in the middle of nowhere" three Kenyan men appeared, walking to the barren landing strip.

"They had big old leather machetes, they were tall, they had spears," she said. "I tried speaking in Swahili and he didn't understand. I showed them my iPad. They're talking and I'm talking and no one knows what anyone is saying."

After the first five days in Kenya, where she made new friends and ultimately obtained her Kenyan pilot's license, McGhee and Smock flew to Uganda where they would meet in Kampala the 12 doctors from around the world who were also taking the tropical medicine course.

The course was intensive, with lectures, ward rounds at various hospitals around the country, and field excursions. McGhee and the other doctors learned about diagnosis and treatment of HIV/AIDS, leprosy, Dengue Fever, malaria, and various other tropical diseases and skin infections.

"There is always a heart sad day, always one where you get really bummed," said McGhee. "The poverty you expect— no water, no power, mud huts are very common. They are happy with that. But what got me, was our leprosy day."

Leprosy patients are treated at St. Francis Hospital in Buluba, Uganda. The medicine for the patients is free, but getting the patients there, keeping them there, and giving them secondary treatment is costly.

At the hospital, world experts on the disease instructed the group on signs and treatment of leprosy, a bacterial disease that causes skin sores, nerve damage, and muscle weakness.

"I realized how many times over the years I had seen leprosy, and I just hadn't recognized it," said McGhee. "That got me… It has been eradicated in the U.S. and is treatable, but once you have it, the damage is permanent."

McGhee notes that many Ugandans with leprosy have lost function in their limbs and she viewed a facility where a man makes prosthetic limbs using a pump sewing machine and plaster of Paris.

McGhee saw numerous other maladies while in Uganda and used her veterinary knowledge to diagnose one woman with toxoplasmosis, a disease spread by cat feces.

She notes that with African patients, it is necessary to ask a lot of questions to extract all pertinent information and get a good history. It is common in Africa to automatically treat for malaria if a patients complains of fever, headache or night sweats. But for the woman with toxoplasmosis, McGhee asked questions about how many children she had (one, a 7-year-old), as well as miscarriages (several) in order to achieve a diagnosis that had eluded other doctors.

Patients, she explained, don't offer information that they had a miscarriage last month, instead, they say, "I can't walk," or "I feel sick."

At all the hospitals McGhee visited in Uganda (and in most other underdeveloped countries she has visited in Africa) she notes that common practice is to not resuscitate patients who quit breathing.

"If you die, they're not bringing you back, they just don't have the time and resources to mess with you," she said.

She explains that a huge stigma remains with AIDS and HIV as well. Many patients don't want the test even though the medicine is free, because other members of the community will shun them as the attitude is they are going to die anyway.

Amidst the somber work of seeing problems that are difficult to overcome, some breaks were arranged for the group, including river excursions. One was a boat ride in the Queen Elizabeth National Park, during which McGhee saw roughly 10 elephants, 10 water buffalo, and five crocodiles all within an area that she estimated to be the size of a high school gymnasium.

After the two-and-a-half weeks in Uganda, McGhee and Smock returned to Nairobi for their last five days in Africa and to see Wesley Korir, who won the 2012 Boston Marathon, win again—this time a seat on the Kenyan National Assembly.

When Korir was a young boy in Kenya, a spitting cobra spit in his brother's face. He ran with his brother on his back in an attempt to get him medical assistance, but his brother died. He later came to the United States to attend college in Kentucky as a runner and used the money earned from running (and winning) marathons to build a medical clinic in the village in Kenya in which he grew up. His village is one that McGhee has visited on medical missions.

McGhee had some concerns about the March election in Kenya, since the last time a presidential election was held in the country in 2007, 1500 people were killed and numerous homes burned.

"We were getting all these warnings and thought maybe we should just go home," said McGhee. "But we were talking to the locals and they were like, 'We're gonna be peaceful and prove to the world we can have an election.'"

As it turned out, all the flights leaving the country were full. McGhee and Smock flew to Kitale, Korir's home village, and watched as the people turned out to vote on Monday, March 4, waiting in long lines in the hot sun. Men and women were in separate lines, with at least 800 voters in each line. She was told the gender separation is because men will push women out of line. McGhee also noted the ballots were all done by hand, with each person getting their fingernail marked with black ink after they had cast their ballot.

"I was amazed and so impressed with the Kenyans that wanted to vote," said McGhee. "Americans complain if they have to wait in line 20 minutes for anything. In Kenya, there were over 14 million registered voters and I think 8 million voted. It took four to five days before they tallied the votes. It was close. There is a lot of tribalism."

McGhee said Korir campaigned on promises to improve schools, give free bus transportation for kids and cheap or free medical care and rid the government of corruption.

McGhee returned home March 6.

"The exciting part is we get to share everything we learned," she said. We met incredibly smart, special doctors from around the world. If you're not living the dream, you're dead and just don't know it… I'm just a vet from Ortonville. My job is to build the dream in other people. We learned so that every trip now will be 10 times better, everyone we come across will have more tools in their bag when they go."

McGhee plans to return to Kenya this summer.

"Africa gets in you, like malaria, and it never leaves," she said.

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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