Pink Canoes in the Ocean…

Or Mycobacteria… It’s like pink canoes in the blue ocean really.

I have been quite behind in writing up stories from outreach, but even though this is from a while back, I wanted to post it :) So during outreach 8 in Milne Bay last year, I got the chance to spend some time training in the lab! I have this passion for TB and want to see what can be done to make a difference in this space. So spending some time with the lab was so refreshing and inspiring!

We’d go out to the village in the day, collect sputum sample… I must admit I can’t take sputum. I gag every time I hear someone cough it up. The consistency grosses me out, and the smell! Ugh! It reminds me of tracheotomy care during my time as a nurse on the surgical floor. But once the thick sputum is spread thin on the microscope slide all is well! We let it dry, burn it, then stain it with a bunch of dyes and it doesn’t look like sputum anymore. Everything is blue.

Until you look under the microscope. Then this is where my attention to detail comes in handy! To diagnose or read a slide, you have to look through 100 fields of vision and scan them thoroughly to ensure there’s no trace of TB.

That image is from one of the many that tested positive on that outreach. Roughly 70% of those tested had tuberculosis. Once tested positive, they can be started on treatment, start getting better and stop spreading the disease.

Testing is relatively hard in Papua New Guinea due to the remoteness. It is hard for patients to get to the health centre. And if the health centre don’t test for TB, they might take a sample, but without proper transport, the sample won’t be viable when it arrives to the next destination. Having the lab on board, not only allows us to diagnose, but also help identify locations that could have a lab and train their staff.

Senegal – Jumping into the Unknown

When I first heard from Sandra, I started to dream of all the possibilities, but not for long, reason kicked in and I remembered that going to Africa was not part of my plan! I had all my work cut out for me for the next months and no finances to go, so I planned to politely decline the invitation.

Days ticked by and I kept thinking of this opportunity to join a team from YWAM in Senegal; to travel to remote villages in the African plain, to bring life and hope & to help fight Malaria. Sandra leads YWAM Gorom’s school of Malaria and she invited me to go on outreach with them in Casamance to do health promotion, diagnosis and treatment of Malaria. What an amazing opportunity! We see a large amount of patients affected by Malaria in PNG and I’m always up for a challenge, learning new things, see how we can adapt what they do and grow our programs with our medical ship, but also see what they do with Malaria and try to apply it to the main health issues we encounter in PNG such as Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

The more time went by, the more I believed it was right to go even though it was getting ridiculously close to the feasibility deadline! After an encouraging chat with a friend and mentor, I decided to jump in and trust that my time in PNG, the “Land of the Unexpected” would have prepared me well to face this new adventure as I had no idea what I was getting into!

My first day in Gorom was spent in the lab where I read my first malaria slide! No rapid testing here! And when there wasn’t any access to electricity, Sandra would use a mirror to reflect the sunlight into the microscope, I never got to that level! When I first started looking into microscopes, the slides were already focused and malaria was in the field. I could pick up the malaria after a quick crash course and with the help of a cheat sheet :)

But it’d be a whole different thing when I’d set up my own microscope in the village and realize I hadn’t seen anything through a microscope in over 10 years! I had the hardest time even just finding the field! But I eventually got there and found my very own malaria parasite! They are tiny, tiny as!!! A little red ring with a glowing red dot! And then the reality of what I was seeing through the microscope hit me. This was a four years old boy… we’d soon find out that the whole family was infected. The older sister carried gametocytes; the kind of malaria that gets picked up by mosquitoes and spread around!!! No one in the family was sleeping under a net, and the sickness was free to roam. We were able to teach the village about the use of treated mosquito nets for prevention and provide them with treatment. In that village, half of the population was positive for Malaria.

Every time we visited a new village, we would first meet with the village elders and chief to explain our mission and ask for permission to help in their village. It was usually short and sweet, despite the fact that it was in four different languages for everyone to understand!!! My YWAM family is so diverse, I love that we had people from 7 nations working together! My favourite meeting was in Sare Hamidou, where the chief of the village, a very devout Muslim man, expressed his gratitude for our coming and our concern for his people. He acknowledged the fact that God had brought us from far away lands like Australia! He then went on to say that since God was behind our project, bringing stranger in, he had no choice but to help; he would gather as many people as possible and help fight Malaria! I would have never thought that my presence alone, or the distance I had travelled could mean so much!

Towards the end of clinic, I would usually have some time to just sit down with the mamas and chat. My favourite part of the day as I get to hear their stories and share the stories my friends in PNG! One afternoon, we looked at pictures of PNG… They loved it! They would stare at the different styles of houses, compare similarities in the culture and laugh at some of the differences. One mama decided to teach me how to ‘properly carry a child” so that I could teach the mamas in PNG. It was so good to see them take pride in their culture and share with me about their lives!

I felt very fortunate to be shown a wide open door into the lives of many in the villages and to be able to jump in very last minute to work alongside and learn from the excellent work that YWAM is doing in Senegal!

Taking this unexpected journey to Africa turned out to be one of the most uncertain, stretching and rewarding thing I’ve done in many years! I have learnt and experienced so much that I’d be ready to jump into the unknown again anytime!

Can I Be Honest!?

Can I Be Honest!?
I got scared.

I had NO idea what I was getting into!
I initially really liked the idea of being invited to join a team in Africa! Then quickly told myself that it was crazy, that I’d be too busy, it’d be way too expensive and turned it down in my mind. It was “the right thing to do”! I let reason win over faith.

I had decided that after 5-6 failed attempts at declining the invitation, today was the day; I would reply to Sandra! I owed it to her. I tried to type a polite response, but as I was thinking about declining, my heart was churning inside, I wasn’t at peace. (That’s usually when I KNOW I’m not doing the right thing!)

I prayed about it, talked to my boss,  we both had conviction I should go, I applied for leave and next thing I knew I had booked my ticket! Point of no return! I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into!

Then reason kicked back in with a “to do list”:

-Check Centre of Disease Control… Is there still Ebola!? Yellow Fever? Which type of Malaria Prophylaxis should I get?
-Book appointment for travel Doctor. I don’t want Yellow Fever!
-Register travel with Canadian and Australian embassies.
-Look at safety recommendations for Senegal. Turns out some regions are known for civil unrest, armed robbery and unexploded land mines!
-Find out from Sandra WHERE we are going on outreach…
-Safe water, electricity, phone/Internet reception?
-Dress code/food/language!?

I knew nothing, and the only clear answers I received weren’t helping!

I’m not high maintenance… I love the village, don’t need electricity or clean water, I just want to know what to expect.

No answer: prepare for the worse! (I expect the best!)

Everything felt a bit surreal. It hadn’t quite hit yet…
It’s only in Dubai that I finally realised that this was really happening!
Good bye Internet, I was on a flight to Dakar.

As I walked down the aisle to find my seat, I could see that everyone on the plane was a black or an asian men. I was the only Caucasian and felt really white! The plane was massive, my seat was literally in the last row! A man behind me harshly & demeaningly told me to move faster. Reflex kicked in, I instantly turned around and gave him the stare anyone would recognise as: “Don’t you dare talk to me like this…! I’ll take as much time as I want!” I wasn’t being slow by any means, I had just dashed across the airport, making the 30 min walk in 15 to catch my flight! I was simply being polite and letting people settle in their seats and put their luggage in their overhead compartments… You know!?

When I sat down I thought “stinking African man! I bet Africa would be a better place with less of those hooligans around!”
It only took a minute for the statement to sink in and my heart to be broken. I realised that I wasn’t carrying God’s heart and I still held on to my biases towards Muslim men. (Even though I have tremendous Muslim friends!) Flashbacks from Morocco ran through my mind. I started worrying about what Senegal would be like. I had no idea..!

God reminded me that He would look after me. After all, He had called me to Africa for such a time as this! That He would guide my every action and words. To hold on to His truth despite all the facts. To trust in Him.

My flight was nearly over… One of the flight attendant started talking to me. “Why are you coming to Senegal? Do you know anyone here? You’re alone, and a white lady! Be careful out there! Don’t get killed, Africa is a dangerous place!”

Great! This is exactly what I needed to hear! Thanks buddy! “What did I get myself into!!!???”

I got myself into what turned out to be an amazing experience! I learnt so much about the work of Gorom a sister location of our mission in Townsville, I learnt about microscopy and malaria… I thought I knew plenty about Malaria, but I still had heaps to discover! I saw a new way of doing outreach with a disease specific target… I realized that lab work needs a lot more time than I would have ever imagined! And I deepened my sense of calling for PNG. Even though I loved the experience, learning about new cultures, and meeting these amazing people, everything reminded of PNG and made me wish I’d be in my home; the “land of the unexpected” where I can communicate in the local language and recognize where people are from by their physical features. It made me realize how much PNG was now part of me and forever in my heart.

I can be honest and admit I got scared but I can also say that all my needs were taken care of, I felt completely safe, ate amazing food and that the worst part of the trip was the incident on the plane..! My God is faithful!

Oh… and the African men were quite fine! I didn’t have any more issues after the plane… I actually have many good memories and made great friends :)