When Christopher Lewis, MD, decided to take the international health elective while a resident in UC's family medicine program, he viewed it as a great opportunity to "see the world" and hone his physical exam skills.
He never realized what he was in for until he actually made his first trip to a small East African village.
"I spent a month working at a local hospital in Tanzania," says Dr. Lewis, a volunteer professor in UC's department of family medicine. "It was an eye-opening experience. Everything there is substandard to what we are used to in the United States. I think the hardest thing I saw was a 13-month-old child that weighed only 8 pounds and was dying from malnutrition.
"Once you visit a place like this, learn of the conditions and meet the people, it's hard to think that you can't do something to help them."
Three years later, Dr. Lewis has turned his vision of seeing the world into providing aid to poor and ill people living in third-world countries through his not-for-profit program, Village Life Outreach Project. Now in its second year, the program is working to "unite communities in an effort to promote life, health and education."
Dr. Lewis' efforts recently expanded to include 14 UC faculty members and students, who traveled more than 10,000 miles to the rural village of Shirati in northern Tanzania, one of the poorest areas in East Africa, to provide health aid to natives and experience what they all call "a trip of a lifetime."
"In one word, the trip was amazing," says Tina Weitkamp, director of international affairs and associate professor of clinical nursing in UC's College of Nursing. "I don't think anyone truly understands how wasteful a society we live in and how much we take for granted until they visit a third-world country.
"In this part of the world, it isn't uncommon to see a person with chronic malaria or an entire family infected with AIDS. They just don't have the same level of care as we do. They use reusable things. Technology is a blood pressure cuff. They have a regional health-care system, but not a lot of doctors or nurses. And, if someone has to walk a few kilometers for health care, they simply don't get it."
For two weeks in late October, the health team, consisting of Weitkamp, medical students Callisia Clarke, Jessica Collyer, Tim Fernandez, Angel Lin, Laura Matrka and Tammy Nusbaum and nursing students Carly Cooper, Emilee Kemp and Erin Paff, visited village after village to treat nearly 1,000 patients with diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, all common in that region.
Kenneth Davis, MD, of UC's department of surgery, also made the trip and performed several tumor and gallbladder removals in the regional hospital.
"The volume of patients at each village clinic was so large that the group was unable to care for everyone," says Dr. Lewis, who hopes someday to open a medical facility in the region. "Many patients had never before seen a physician, and many children had received no immunizations."
Although Dr. Lewis says it was impossible to cure everyone they saw, the team did use an estimated $30,000 to $40,000 worth of medicine to treat ill villagers.
With medical supplies low in the region, the team depended on their own equipment, in addition to $5,000 in donated medical supplies they received from BKG Medical Supplies prior to their trip. All leftover products were donated to the Shirati regional hospital.
"It's hard to go on one of these trips--they test your own humanity," says Dr. Lewis. "It takes a lot out of you, but seeing how much our efforts are appreciated by the villagers is a huge reward."
In between health clinics, the nursing students conducted community assessments in adjacent villages. They also held a dental-care program in the village schools, which involved teaching children how to brush their teeth.
"We gave the schoolchildren toothbrushes and toothpaste, which they were happy to receive," says Weitkamp. "Here we use our toothbrush for a few months and throw it out. There, they use it until it falls apart."
Outside the health clinics, two UC engineering students, Anna Hoessle and Sara Pumphrey, developed a village water-filtration system. They installed three filters in schools and more importantly, they educated the villagers on how to build the filters with local materials.
"The water filtration system was a huge success," says Dr. Lewis. "During our first trip, we conducted surveys with village leaders and learned that the top need was access to clean water. That's why we came back with a clean water team.
"On the next trip, we hope to do more comprehensive education on clean water. One of the most important aspects of our mission is to work with villagers so that they can solve their own problems, and not just accept handouts."
Faculty volunteered to participate in the program, while students were selected through an application process. All participants covered their own travel expenses, but many obtained financial support through UC's global studies program and local donations.
"Doing a trip like this is a life-changing experience and a lifetime opportunity," says Weitkamp. "I've come to realize that I don't need three-fourths of what I have and that we're all a lot stronger and a lot more resourceful and creative than we think we are.
"I think that it's important that programs, such as Village Life, continue to tackle some the basic barriers to health in poor regions."
Dr. Lewis plans to return to the same village next October. To learn more about his Village Life Outreach Project, or how you can donate to it, visit www.villagelifeoutreach.org.