Doctor’s volunteer stints help more than rural Kenyans

“I get a lot more out of it than they do, frankly.”

Having been on a quartet of medical mission trips to Africa, Dr. Daniel Eller has provided a helping healing hand to a small community in Ngaamba, Kenya. Yet it’s the experience and newfound relationships that have helped him and soothed his soul.

“It’s extremely rewarding,” he recently said over the phone from his office at the Maternal Fetal Diagnostic Center at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta. “I always say I get a lot more out of it than they do, frankly.”

Eller and a group of volunteers make the trips through North Point Ministries, an Atlanta-based group of churches, and its mission organization, Global X. For each trip, Global X partners with a group that’s already working in a particular location with an organized system in place.

“It makes our short time there more valuable,” Eller said, “because it’s fitting into the bigger strategy of the group that’s there.”

Eller and company partner with a group in Kenya called 410 Bridge, which finds its way into rural communities. Ngaamba has a population of approximately 7,000 made up of several smaller communities. 410 Bridge works with the communities and sets up a leadership council for each. They communicate with them and find out about their larger needs. These typically include water, education and medical care. When 410 Bridge is working on the latter, Eller and his fellow volunteers jump in.

Global X, through 410 Bridge, built the Itumbule Clinic in one of Ngaamba’s communities. The Kenyan government has recognized the clinic and now staffs it with three full-time nurses. About twice each year, a Global X group makes a medically related visit. For the better part of the week, they set up a primary care center at the clinic. On his most recent trip this summer, Eller was one of four physicians, a nurse practitioner and a physician’s assistant.

Q.: What’s it like visiting this community?

A.: I’ve been to this particular community four times. The people are just so welcoming. They’re so happy to see us. They have this little celebration when we first get there. They sing and dance for us, and make us feel like we’re their long lost friends. A lot of it is about the relationships we build with the community. This community has become so proud of its partnership with 410 Bridge and us that the last time we were there, they hand drew two maps of their community. One was a map of their community before partnering with 410 Bridge and the other was after. It showed all of the different accomplishments they now have like the better schools, the water and the clinic. And they were so proud of what had been accomplished through all of these relationships. You can see this community moving forward. The ultimate goal is to make them totally independent where we wouldn’t even need to go. We would then choose another community and do the same thing. So it’s like going very deep with a small group of people. It may potentially and eventually make an impact on the whole country, but in the short run it’s making a large impact on a smaller amount of people.

Q.: What sort of medical issues do you see on your visits?

A.: We see everything. The specialists we happened to have with us on our last trip included a pediatrician who’s worked in the emergency room before, but now does newborn care at Northside Hospital. We had two emergency room doctors, a PA and a critical care nurse practitioner who works for a pulmonology group. The neat thing about it is with that kind of variety we’re able to bounce things off each other and ask each other questions. You never know what you’re going to see. We have people who do triage, who will figure out who is the best person among us with the right skill set to see a particular patient. I diagnosed a lot of hypertension last time. About half of them already knew they had it, and the other half didn’t. Because of the hard life these people live, you see a lot of aches and pains, arthritis, and musculoskeletal pains of all kinds. Because of my background, I saw a lot of pregnant women and gynecological problems. Samsung, one of the companies that make ultrasounds, has been kind enough to allow me to borrow a portable machine and take it with me on virtually all of these trips. Basically they said, ‘We believe in what you’re doing, and let us know and we’ll try and get you a machine to take with you.’ And that’s what they’ve done every time. So I was able to take an ultrasound machine and look at the things I’m used to looking at like pregnancy and gynecological ultrasounds, but I looked at everything. I looked at kidneys, gallbladders, masses all over the body, and all kinds of things. The machine was a valuable asset to help us diagnostically. The clinic has no electricity yet. They do have a little bit of running water, but we use a whole lot of hand sanitizer when we’re there. They can do some very basic lab work there, including pregnancy tests and urinalysis. They do a whole lot there for what little resources they have, and they actually deliver babies there. But it’s so primitive that they don’t have beds to put the mothers in after they deliver. So the mother gives birth, rests for a bit and then walks home.

Q.: What sort of big realizations do you walk away with after these trips?

A.: I realize that people halfway across the world have all of the same hopes, dreams and concerns in the most basic sense as I do. They care about their family and they’re concerned about illness like we are. When it comes down to the basic things, they’re way more like us than not. …One of the most amazing things is these people who have next to nothing materially are as happy as they can be. With them, it’s all about relationships, because that’s all they have. Poverty at times can be very depressing, but within these communities they don’t see themselves that way. It’s amazing that they can be as happy as they are with as little materially as they have. …I think we’re making a difference. A lot of people question if it’s worth it to just go somewhere for a week. My life has changed. I have relationships with people halfway around the world that I never would have had. I’ve been able to help some of them medically and help make a real difference in their lives and their community.

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