Enduring solutions a world away

BMH nurse goes where services are needed most

BRATTLEBORO — Among the list of things many take for granted in this country, basic health care products and information are so far down the list that it is hard to picture life without them.

But for Lauren Rose Herlocker, a nurse in the Emergency Department of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, this imagining is as easy as breathing.

This is because of the service work Herlocker has done and plans to do in Ghana and Rwanda.

In October, Herlocker plans to return to Africa to assist a struggling new clinic in Tafi Atome, Ghana, with a volunteer group called Compassionate Journeys, and to continue work she did last year in Giseny, Rwanda, conducting a health census with faculty and students from the University of Florida and other volunteers.

“While I am there,” Herlocker said, “I will be providing health, nutrition and HIV prevention education. I will [also] be attending to wounds, following up on last year's census and helping a friend [Jessica McElroy] who received a grant from the University of Florida to provide water filtration systems to the village.”

Herlocker said she is delighted to have the opportunity to do some follow up and assess the effectiveness of the village's new water systems.

One of the main reasons all of this support is going to one small Rwandan is village is that it is inhabited by the Twa, people that represent “10 percent of the country's population and are widely marginalized by the rest of the population who consider them ignorant and uncivilized,” according to the grant action plan for McElroy's project.

The plan also indicates that clean water is in short supply and what there is remains out of reach for the majority of the villagers.

“Most people can't afford the tap water and they get river water,” said Herlocker, “hence they get worms and other diseases.”

This was one of the alarming trends researched and uncovered by the health censuses conducted in 2010 and 2011 by the group associated with the University of Florida.

Teaching the basics

Herlocker, who was on site for the 2011 census work, said that in addition to resource scarcity, there is a severe “lack of education” across the board, pertaining to everything from the reasons you wash your hands to the ways one can contract HIV.

“I think it's eye-opening because you assume that they know such basic things that are so basic for us,” said Herlocker.

On top of the very real threat of disease, there is often a shortage of food, which leaves children in the lurch due to the societal practice of feeding the working adults first.

“Children flat out die all the time,” Herlocker said with regret. Because of this inevitable fragility, “they feed the older people first.”

As a result of the food scarcity, malnutrition is rampant, especially among children.

“Because their nutrition is so poor... a scrape on the knee can turn into a big infection that gets into the bone really quickly,” said Herlocker.

For this reason, and because basic health care and treatment is also hard to come by, Herlocker has had a dramatically different experience working with sick people in Africa than here in the United States.

“Here, it's a little more expected,” said Herlocker. “Insurance, no insurance, someone's going to take care of them. There, it's unexpected and it doesn't always happen.”

Reflecting on last year's trip to Rwanda, Herlocker said, “they're so appreciative of anything and everything you can do for them. You don't have to go over there and perform major surgery. People die from very simple things so when they can get care for their family, it's very meaningful.”

Looking ahead to this year's trip, Herlocker was quick to mention how her trip differs from those of the other men and women with whom she will work.

“It's self-funded,” stated Herlocker. “I'm not going with an NGO behind me.”

In order to provide free health services, Herlocker said, “I'm collecting a lot of things from the hospital – like expired supplies that I [will] bring over.” These will go a long way, but won't help with every situation.

Accordingly, Herlock said, “I've been seeking some donations from friends and family to help pay for vaccines, immunizations and antibiotics to treat the village... I'm hoping to gather a couple hundred dollars to pay for things like food and Fenbendazole, a treatment for worms.”

Herlocker addressed the need for food by saying, “When we do education classes we provide food for the day.”

Unsurprisingly, the promise of a meal gives attendance a boost, in addition to providing its much needed nutrition.

“A small amount of money goes really far,” she said. “You don't need very much to do a lot. I remember last year, I spent about $30 to feed 75 to 100 people with beans and rice for two days.”

When asked what inspires her to travel all that way to provide food, knowledge, and health care on her own dime, Herlocker simply said that “it's empowering, it feels good, and it makes me care for people here differently.”

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