FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A White Doctor in Africa

by

The perennial debate in the U.S. over health care costs vs. quality of care, and the increasing commercialism of many of my medical colleagues remind me of a meeting I had during one of my missions in Africa.

I was visiting Río Muni, the continental half of Equatorial Guinea, with some medical colleagues. We were assessing the health situation in the country and had arrived at Niefang, a small, sparsely populated, neglected town in the interior.

In the town hospital I met a young Spanish physician. Calm and self-assured, he radiated warmth.

He was treating a difficult case, an older man whose body was covered by large, irregularly shaped, infected ulcers. The infections, with the heat and lack of hygiene, reeked. Dr. Ramón Vila described the health status of the other patients in the ward, and then he led us on a tour of the rest of the hospital.

He took us to the delivery room. Ill at ease, he told us that they had to share it with the first-aid room, which increased the possibilities for the spread of infections. The hospital’s scarce financial resources, he explained, made this unavoidable.

We continued our visit. Everywhere we went I received the same impression: crowded facilities, poverty, lack of essential items, run-down services. Dr. Vila did not seem to be affected by these difficulties. I, however, felt discouraged.

Soon afterwards he took us to his house, located near the hospital. The house was small but well kept. Most of the time, it lacked running water and electricity. I asked Dr. Vila about his background. He had graduated from university in Barcelona, he said, where he married a fellow student. Since they were both interested in working in developing countries, they went to Nicaragua.

“We chose Nicaragua following a curious circumstance,” he said. “I was studying a rather unusual case, one of only 211 recorded in the medical literature. Suddenly, I was struck by the irrationality of my study. What was its purpose, I thought, when all over the world millions of human beings are hungry and live in total misery?

“So we decided to go to Nicaragua, where I learned to look at death in a new way. I found the Nicaraguans to be a truly remarkable and stoic people, with a profound sense of friendship and love. When one of them was killed during the war, they quietly buried the dead and continued their struggle for life.”

After a while in Nicaragua, Dr. Vila and his wife decided to go to Africa and, through a Spanish government organization, they went to the rural hospital where we met. They soon developed a special relationship with the people in the area. When we were visiting the hospital, we watched his wife, Mercedes, teaching a nutrition class to a group of community health workers.
We had some cold drinks — a rare treat in the oppressive heat and humidity — and continued our chat. We discussed the case of the patient with the ulcers. We agreed on the usefulness of finding and treating diseases frequent in that area. For somebody from the industrialized world, they could only be found in medical textbooks.

I assumed that after having a good professional experience, Dr. Vilas would return to Barcelona. It is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and, I thought, he would develop a brilliant career in his native city. I asked him about his plans for the future.

“I want to remain here,” he said calmly. “You see, there are times when one does things not because of the comfort they bring but for a different reason, a moral call if you wish. And that is the challenge that I found here.

“In Barcelona I would be irritated by a temporary lack of electricity or by an unchanging traffic light. Here I fight every day against death, and many times I lose the battle. But here I feel fulfilled. I know that in this place, despite its primitive conditions, my work makes a difference. I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.”

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

January 24, 2017
Anthony DiMaggio
Reflections on DC: Promises and Pitfalls in the Anti-Trump Uprising
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Developer Welfare: Trump’s Infrastructure Plan
Melvin Goodman
Trump at the CIA: the Orwellian World of Alternative Facts
Sam Mitrani – Chad Pearson
A Short History of Liberal Myths and Anti-Labor Politics
Kristine Mattis
Democracy is Not a Team Sport
Andrew Smolski
Third Coast Pillory: Mexico, Neo-Nationalism and the Capitalist World-System
Ted Rall
The Women’s March Was a Dismal Failure and a Hopeful Sign
Norman Pollack
Woman’s March: Halt at the Water’s Edge
Pepe Escobar
Will Trump Hop on an American Silk Road?
Franklin Lamb
Trump’s “Syria “Minus Iran” Overture to Putin and Assad May Restore Washington-Damascus Relations
Kenneth R. Culton
Violence By Any Other Name
David Swanson
Why Impeach Donald Trump
Christopher Brauchli
Trump’s Contempt
January 23, 2017
John Wight
Trump’s Inauguration: Hail Caesar!
Mark Schuller
So What am I Doing Here? Reflections on the Inauguration Day Protests
Patrick Cockburn
The Rise of Trump and Isis Have More in Common Than You Might Think
Binoy Kampmark
Ignored Ironies: Women, Protest and Donald Trump
Gregory Barrett
Flag, Cap and Screen: Hollywood’s Propaganda Machine
Gareth Porter
US Intervention in Syria? Not Under Trump
L. Ali Khan
Trump’s Holy War against Islam
Gary Leupp
An Al-Qaeda Attack in Mali:  Just Another Ripple of the Endless, Bogus “War on Terror”
Norman Pollack
America: Banana Republic? Far Worse
Bob Fitrakis - Harvey Wasserman
We Mourn, But We March!
Kim Nicolini
Trump Dump: One Woman March and Personal Shit as Political
William Hawes
We Are on Our Own Now
Martin Billheimer
Last Tango in Moscow
Colin Todhunter
Development and India: Why GM Mustard Really Matters
Mel Gurtov
Trump’s America—and Ours
David Mattson
Fog of Science II: Apples, Oranges and Grizzly Bear Numbers
Clancy Sigal
Who’s Up for This Long War?
Weekend Edition
January 20, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Divide and Rule: Class, Hate, and the 2016 Election
Andrew Levine
When Was America Great?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: This Ain’t a Dream No More, It’s the Real Thing
Yoav Litvin
Making Israel Greater Again: Justice for Palestinians in the Age of Trump
Linda Pentz Gunter
Nuclear Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Ruth Fowler
Standing With Standing Rock: Of Pipelines and Protests
David Green
Why Trump Won: the 50 Percenters Have Spoken
Dave Lindorff
Imagining a Sanders Presidency Beginning on Jan. 20
Pete Dolack
Eight People Own as Much as Half the World
Roger Harris
Too Many People in the World: Names Named
Steve Horn
Under Tillerson, Exxon Maintained Ties with Saudi Arabia, Despite Dismal Human Rights Record
John Berger
The Nature of Mass Demonstrations
Stephen Zielinski
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
David Swanson
Six Things We Should Do Better As Everything Gets Worse
Alci Rengifo
Trump Rex: Ancient Rome’s Shadow Over the Oval Office
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail