On The Time I Saved a Life

July 3, 2014

Last night one of the girls at Wema with poorly controlled asthma had an attack brought on by the latest thunderstorm. It quickly deteriorated into status asthmaticus, a life-threatening, severe asthma attack that merits immediate hospitalization in the intesive care unit. Failure to do so can result in death.I’ve never been more scared in my life.
I’m in rural Kenya and ambulances are few and far between, let alone in the torrential downpour that we were experiencing. The thunderstorms could not drown out her wheezing as her lungs were closing up and she was only at 10% breathing capacity. She was suffocating to death; her inhalers were no longer helping. My mom, a Family Medicine doctor, was with me and knew that the girl needed high dose steroids if she had a shot at living.We had come to Wema a few days earlier to give all 500 children primary care checkups and the appropriate medication. The last time I was here, I encountered allergies, GI issues, and infected cuts and scrapes. Granted my medical knowledge was limited at the time so I was blinded to the actual diagnoses of their various complaints, but I knew that they had illnesses that were beyond my capacities. I had hoped that bringing my doctor-mom, who had been practicing for over 25 years would bring some clarity to their healthcare. While I was correct, I never anticipated that we would be thrown into a situation of life and death, forced to use every medical tool in our arsenal to keep someone alive.

I could see the worried look on my mom’s face and immediately knew that we were in trouble. While she remained relatively calm, I knew that any indication of panic from a woman that was normally composed was a grave sign. Without medicine, a doctor could do little to help someone with a severe asthma attack. She felt as helpless as I did.

We convinced the director of the school to take us to the local pharmacist to see if he had the medicine the girl needed. Though teachers warned us that leaving the compound this late at night was dangerous and we could be kidnapped, we felt that we had no option. A girl’s life was on the line and only we could save her. By the time we left she had already passed out from oxygen deprivation; we were running out of time. We used dim flashlights and with only a few feet of visibility in front of us, we braved the elements and trecked through the flooded dirt road, surrounded by nothing but darkness, for one mile into the nearest town (safety be damned!).

We came upon Bukembe Village, which was still because it was so late at night, and after banging on the doors of the pharmacist’s house and saying that we were doctors and a girl was dying, he opened the shop and fortunately had the medicine we needed. We bought 100 pills of Prednisone 5 mg and 60 pills of Salbuterol (for future use because we knew that there would be more attacks). Though our spirits were lifted because we had the medicine to save her life, we weren’t in the clear yet. We hurried back to the girls’ dormitory where she was lying (fortunately conscious) on a bed, her wheezing still as bad as ever.

My mom convinced her to take the medication and within one minute her wheezing had dissipated and she could breathe; she had saved her life. And with that, we were finally able to breathe again. Had my mom not been there and had the pharmacist not had the medication, she may not have made it through the night. Call it God or fate or a coincidence, but life smiled on her last night.

After staying with the girl for a few minutes longer to make sure that she was alright, we walked out of the dormitory towards Stephen and Teresa’s house. We didn’t care that the rain was still drenching us or that we had forgotten to eat dinner. We had saved a life. I had never experienced anything like it.

This is why I’m so passionate about working in developing countries because as evident by this incident, one physician can save a life. The needs are so basic in the resource poor settings that we have the capacity to do a lot of good as doctors. Unfortunately, the reality of healthcare, or lack thereof, in the developing world is such that simple problems with known solutions are often untreated. Therein lies the tragedy because we have the capacity to treat it as doctors so it’s instant gratification, but it’s also heartbreaking because the solutions are available, just not in certain geographic regions. People are falling ill and dying for things we know how to treat. I know I can’t help everyone, but I can help some, and this is why I’m becoming a doctor.


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