Oakley nurse tends heart patients in Belarus
Oakley resident Katie Clingan describes her Oct.15 return from a two-week medical mission to Belarus as a relief, but she would do it again she says. She will wait a few years for the operations at Minsk’s Beyelorussian Children’s Surgery Center’s cardiovascular surgery department to develop, however. Physician and doctors skills need to catch up to the equipment.
On arrival, Clingan observed a modern city bustling with Lexus and BMW cars, with scarcely a cigarette butt on the ground. Her initial impression soon changed.
One night she recalls an emergency midnight call from the hospitals to two type O-positive mission volunteers. According to Clingan, spur-of-the-moment blood transfusions from hospital workers occurred whenever extra blood was needed. If they ran out of blood, Belarus hospital staff would ask whoever was in the room whether they could donate a little. Ultimately, extra transfusions were not necessary and no one ended up giving blood, she says.
"We called Minsk the society of irony, because there was this contrast between what the city wanted you to see and the way it actually was, " she explained. "The hospital equipment is state-of-the-art yet they recycle syringes, run out of soap and they typically don’t know how to use the machines. It really forced me to sharpen my skills."
A nurse at Primary Children’s Hospital, Clingan heard about the International Children’s Heart Foundation’s medical missions from a coworker who had gone to Sudan. The International Children’s Heart Foundation goes to 16 hospitals on six continents annually to mitigate the damaging effects of heart disease in developing nations. Clingan was one of 17 volunteers on the trip from Britain, Canada and The United States. The foundation reports one percent of children are born with heart disease, making it the No. 1 congenital birth defect.
In Belarus, the central concern is the lifetime exposure to radiation from Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor explosion in 1986. Belarusian parents are afraid to allow their children to have x-rays. Typically, patients who will be operated on have two to three x-rays a day during pre-op and recovery days, but Clingan says Belarusian children only had x-rays two to three times a year at most. Clingan estimates that though the Chernobyl nuclear explosion only released three percent of its radiation, in nearly 99 percent of Belarus, high-count radiation continues to linger. The children Clingan saw on her trip not only have parents who were exposed at the height of the explosion, but are continuously exposed themselves, she noted. "I asked a physician who had gone on the mission six times whether she was concerned about the radiation, and she said she wasn’t since the danger was really prolonged exposure," she said. According to the heart foundation, a baby from a developing country born with congenital heart failure usually goes undiagnosed, and parents don’t notice until the child begins to have difficulty eating and growing. And even if a child is diagnosed, doctors don’t necessarily have the resources to help, and end up telling parents they will need to go to another country to get help. Once Belarus’ minister of health notified the country of the mission’s October arrival, 100 parents from across the country camped out in the surgery center. Most had on-going congenital heart failure, but had only had one surgery as a baby that was intended only for a few years, said Clingan. The mission only had time for 20 of those children who came to the hospital.
"The kids were really skinny and malnourished," Clingan explained. "There was a boy who had surgery when he was four months old and now he’s eight. Parents just don’t know that the first operation is just a temporary fix." Part of the challenge of the mission was the language barrier. Though 20 year-old language students from Belarus helped volunteers communicate with hospital staff and children, they often didn’t know medical terms, Clingan said. "Supplies and medications in the medical cabinets were in Russian, which made it hard to assemble supplies afterwards" she said. Clingan’s description of Belarus may seem bleak, but as she talks about Minsk, she punctuates her memories with smiles. She remembers seeing dilapidated housing outside the city limits, but she also remembers how the women "dressed to the nines" who proudly sported high heels on 36-hour shifts and the cousins, sisters, mothers and fathers who accompanied children at the hospital.
"Coming home, you really appreciate owning your own home and land. But I would definitely go back [to Belarus], especially with this group," she said. "I learned to be really resourceful and creative, and I think it made me a better nurse."
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