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Thursday, 27 November 2014

GP goes back to basics during African adventure

A PRUDHOE GP swapped her well equipped surgery for a primitive health centre in one of the poorest parts of Kenya.

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For five months, instead of modern equipment and comfortable surroundings, Dr Ann Egan (52) lived without running water, toilets or washing facilities and only two hours of electricity in the evening.

But every day she was treating patients with life threatening illnesses.

Unconscious people were frequently wheeled into Nan Bell Health Centre in Simbiri, West Kenya, on bicycles, or they were carried in by relatives.

Malaria, typhoid, dysentry and HIV related sickness were the most common cases Dr Egan had to deal with.

Dr Egan, who lives in Corbridge, said: “It’s impossible to imagine how the people manage to survive in such harsh conditions.

“Drought is an annual occurrence causing crops to fail, and lack of food leads to malnutrition.

“Then when the rains do come, they bring another set of difficulties like malaria and typhoid.

“The cases I saw were much, much worse than anything I’ve ever seen in this country in hospital or as a GP.

“Yet the people were so friendly and welcoming I loved being there.”

Dr Egan has been a GP at Prudhoe Medical Group for 14 years.

Nan Bell Health Centre has next to no facilities by comparison to all the latest medical advances and hospital equipment available in this country – yet it provides a life-saving service.

Dr Egan found out about the centre when a friend described how it had been set up 20 years ago by Newcastle GP, Dr Keith Dick, and his wife Dee.

It has grown over the years and now has 23 beds and a new paediatric ward.

It provides work for 42 people locally.

Nan Bell is the only health provision for miles around and many patients would die if they had to make their way elsewhere or pay for treatment.

It is almost totally reliant on charitable donations from the UK, fund-raising events and a tiny income generated by an on-site mortuary and funeral service.

Dr Egan said: “The Kenyans living in the area are very poor indeed and subsist from day to day as best they can, living off the land.

“Most have to collect water from wells or nearby rivers, which may be contaminated.

“Although the health centre has water tanks, they often run dry.

“There is only one 18-year-old 4-wheel drive vehicle to travel over rough tracks collecting patients, water and supplies, and even bodies for the mortuary.

“Nearly all the cooking is done outside over open fires or tiny charcoal stoves.

“As for medicine and equipment, the health centre relies on a careful selection of cheap but effective drugs and improvisation is often required when treating illnesses.

“There is no operating theatre or X-ray equipment.”

During her stay as a volunteer, Dr Egan was the only fully qualified doctor at Nan Bell.

And she was keen to set up projects which would continue once she came home.

The most successful was an HIV group which grew from a handful of people with HIV to more than 170 within a few weeks.

At least a quarter of 20 to 40 year olds in this part of Kenya have HIV.

Dr Egan said: “There is an enormous stigma about HIV in Kenya and people are very reluctant to talk about it.

“However, once the group started and men and women spoke out about it, the floodgates opened.

“Their message was that getting tested was a good idea, and with medical support it is possible to lead normal lives.”

While Dr Egan was in Kenya, she was visited by friend and neighbour Sheilagh Matheson, a freelance film producer and director.

Sheilagh made a 10 minute film about Nan Bell Health Centre which can be seen on YouTube and the charity’s website, www.kenyaclinic.org.

Sheilagh said: “Quite apart from the challenge of filming in such demanding circumstances, it was shocking to see what a struggle life is out there.

“They have so little and we have so much. It was an amazing experience being there for just eight days.

“Goodness knows how Ann managed for five months.”

Dr Egan is now adjusting to life back in the Tyne Valley, and is fund-raising for the Nan Bell Health Centre.

She hopes to give talks and show the film to organisations which are interested in hearing her story.

Anyone who would like to donate to the charity Dr Egan should contact her on (01434) 632243.

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