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Out of Africa: ‘Instead of leaving a legacy, I want to live it’

by Susan Bromley

January 18, 2012

McGhee with a water buffalo skull.
The boy, Khamis, was just 7-years-old and terrified.

Head down, he kept still and wouldn't make eye contact. His mother, a poor widow with two other children, had walked more than four hours in the 90-plus degree heat of Tanzania, carrying her son on her back, to reach a medical clinic where she'd heard there was an American missionary group, including a surgeon.

Elizabeth and Catherine McGhee, a mother and daughter from Brandon Township, were among the group.

Upon seeing the boy, Elizabeth's first impression was that a piece of wood was sticking out of his lower leg, which was gray and smelled rotten and infected. With dawning horror, she realized it wasn't wood, it was his tibia bone, broken in a soccer accident two years ago.

"The fact that he was still alive was insane," recalled Catherine, who walked away from her mother and the boy so she could cry alone.

The boy was one of many heart-wrenching patients the pair saw on their trip to the east African nation in mid-December. The McGhees have traveled to Africa before on medical missions, but said Tanzania was the most impoverished area they have been to. On this trip with Mercy and Truth Medical Missions, in partnership with New Birth Company, they were joined by a surgeon from Troy, a Clarkston emergency room nurse, a doctor from Kentucky, an obstetrical nurse from Kansas, an ICU nurse from Chicago and a nurse practitioner from Kansas City.

"We had never met, but our lives are forever entwined now," said Elizabeth, who is a licensed veterinarian.

The group brought all of their own medicine and medical equipment on their mission, traveling first to Mwanza, where they stayed Dec. 10 and 11, then on to Musoma, where they settled in to treat patients from Dec. 12-18.

"We were busy," said Catherine. "When we first got to the church, there was a big welcoming ceremony, we introduced ourselves, we started the clinic and a baby was born."

Catherine noted as the mother labored and delivered her child, she barely made any noise. The mother had brought her own clothing and sheet to sit on and deliver. Just 10 minutes after the baby was born, the woman went to the bathroom and Catherine and Elizabeth found her in there washing her clothes.

"They are tough!" Catherine said. "Their pain tolerance is unbelievable."

The mission team saw a variety of illness, disease and general maladies that would not be seen in the United States.

In Mwanza, Catherine was particularly impacted by a 2-month-old boy with severe malaria, whose mother had only been able to afford a basic intravenous drip.

"Her baby was in pain and she couldn't do anything," recalled Catherine. "He was crying, his fists were clenched, fortunately were were able to give him medicine, treat him and watch him progress every day. To be able to see what you do make an impact and work—oh, it does make a difference."

Elizabeth and Catherine also saw a child with elephant man disease. The medical team removed a fist-sized fibrous mass from the child's ear. They also saw leprosy and did numerous hernia repairs, many resulting from botched Caesarean section births.

The Americans found themselves frustrated with the source of many problems—including tainted water and the Tanzanian government's restrictions that hindered their ability to help. Those restrictions, Elizabeth said, include a rule by the government that if a baby is born before 37 weeks, the infant can not be given special care. The baby can nurse and be wrapped in a blanket, she said, but can't be given oxygen or IVs.

There are also restrictions on the use of anesthetic machines, because everything boils down to money, Elizabeth added.

"They have a government hospital that is supposedly free, but it's not," she explained. "Other facilities would have machines, but the government doesn't allow use of them. In this pickle, what are we gonna do?"

For Khamis, the boy with the broken tibia, the leg could not be saved. Amputation was the only solution. They used an injectable anesthetic and had only a short time period to complete the surgery and were also short on equipment. Elizabeth assisted in the surgery.

"The surgeon told me to get the bone out of the way, and I snapped it off," she said. "It was the most crazy thing. We didn't have a bone saw, so we went to a store where they sold axes and machetes, and there was a hacksaw we bought."

The surgery took a half-hour, and they amputated the child's leg right below the knee joint so he could be fitted for a prosthesis. When Khamis awoke, he quietly sobbed, putting his fist in his mouth and spoke to his mother and the translator interpreted for Elizabeth.

"He was saying, 'Where's my leg, Mama, where's my leg?'" recalled Elizabeth. "I said, 'Please tell him his leg was so full of poison and so sick, we had to throw it far away.' He stopped crying."

Khamis and his mother left shortly after surgery in a taxi the medical team paid for that would get them as close to their village as possible and back to their home where Khamis' 4- and 8-year-old siblings were waiting, alone.

Catherine said every time she goes to Africa, it is a reminder to be grateful.

"I want to be more appreciative," she said. "I became good friends with one of the nurses and each time when I complain, she will ask me now, 'Is your tibia intact?' I have learned to be grateful."

Elizabeth notes she hears of people talking about their "bucket lists," things they want to do before they die.

"It's always high-falutin' stuff," she said. "Instead of leaving a legacy, I want to live it. I want to go back and see that kid in 20 years. It revamps your whole perspective of what you're doing in life and why. It means everything to see my daughter learn that the secret of living is giving."