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Medicine in Togo by Joie Waxler

Medicine TogoA few months ago, around January, after I returned to finish my first year at Bryn Mawr College after winter break, I called home and told my mum that I was going to Africa for an internship. She laughed. But after much discussion about this amazing program I had found called Projects Abroad, and after many phone calls to the ever willing and unendingly helpful staff at Projects Abroad, she was reassured enough to let me go. And I was confident enough, or recklessly excited at the prospect of working in Togo enough to hit the submit button on my application.

It wasn’t difficult to decide that I wanted to go to Togo. I had always been enticed by the idea of working in Africa, and when I graduate from Bryn Mawr College, hopefully with a bachelors in biology and political science, I hope to work in the public health arena with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. I have studied French for many years and wanted to continue my studies by being immersed in the language, so Togo was the easy choice.

There was a medical project that I could do, and I would be able to further my French studies. I did some research on the country, its rich history and its vibrant culture and I was convinced that this was the place for me. Fast forward five months and a few weeks to my last week in Togo and I find myself already reflecting on the amazing experience that I had.

Volunteering in TogoLast week, Rodrigue, (who works for Projects Abroad), the wonderful, enthusiastic, always ready with a smile Rodrigue, asked me to write an article about my time here in Togo for the Togo newsletter. I’ve been putting it off because writing this article means that my time here is almost finished, and it is with bitter sweet sorrow that I leave this amazing place.

I’m excited to see my family, and tell them about my adventures here, tell them everything that I couldn’t convey in my rare emails home. What better way however, to convey to everyone else what I’ve been doing here. And so here it is - a brief glance at my time here in Togo.

Bonjour ma famille! ca va? - My Email Home

So, its day eleven, and it only took ten. It took exactly ten days for Africa to get under my skin. I just finished the book 'Mountains beyond Mountains' and my favorite part, or the part I found to be the most poignant, was when Paul Farmer was a young man working in Haiti, talking to the American doctor who was prepared to forget Haiti and return to his first class life, and Farmer thought, 'could I do that? Could I really just forget?'.

Medical outreach

It took me ten days to realize that I wouldn't be able to forget. Yesterday a young man came into the office with large lumps, discoloration, and calcified skin from his upper chest down to his toes. I thought it looked like horrible, horrible burns but I wondered what disease could have caused this. While sitting in on the consultation I realized that the awful disfigurement of this man's whole body was in fact caused by severe burns.

He had been working on a boat transporting oil when the oil caught fire and exploded. He had been recovering for a year, waiting until the burns had begun to heal and calcify, causing him to be unable to straighten one of legs or to be able to hold his nephew with both arms. Now the good news is that his family has enough money for a plastic surgeon to be able to give this man his life back. More good news, he was fully grown when this happened. Had he been a child, he would have kept growing but his skin wouldn't have grown with him, causing even more deformities. Lastly, he survived. He was one of the few on that boat that did.

Earlier that day, a man had come in and during the examination I felt his spleen; it was rock solid about to burst. He probably has a severe form of malaria. We are waiting for the tests, but there is a chance he has a fatal strain. He had to be given IV fluids and he spent the rest of the day vomiting. I have also already seen my first HIV positive test. It was a surprisingly shocking experience, seeing that positive line, but for the Togolese, it’s an everyday occurrence.

Weekend trip

So Africa has done its job and wormed its way into my heart. Now, I write this because it's important that you know that what is going on here in Togo is important and I am experiencing it first-hand. But it's also incredible. Today I saw my very first live surgery, from start to finish. A solid four hours observing a surgeon partially remove a woman's uterus, excise the multiple and large calcifications (non-cancerous) and then return everything to its place and finally stitch her up as if her lower abdomen hadn't been cut open, her organs partially removed, human hands searching around inside her, and detrimental parts of her organ removed. I was a mere two feet from the operating table. I have never felt such a high, it was really amazing!

Medical Outreach work

I visited my second orphanage today and we painted the walls with fun cartoons, and tomorrow I am going to an orphanage after work to administer Malaria tests and Malaria drugs. The kids are really wonderful, and I love playing with them. They really are taken by having a 'Yovo' (that's that native word for white person) to play with. I also visited a local school where the kids, hundreds of them all sang songs to welcome the weekend. Then I went to every classroom to introduce myself and thank them for having me. It was really a wonderful experience.

Today, I also did my first malaria test. I pricked my first finger and prepared my first IV. It was quite a day. I'm learning so much.

Traveling in Togo

Volunteering Togo

This weekend I traveled to Togoville, the center of Togo. The history was very interesting and we learned a lot about the history of the slave trade and the colonization of Togo from a Togolese perspective.

Next weekend I will going to a village called Kpalime, where there is lush vegetation, beautiful waterfalls, and it’s the best kept secret in Togo, or so I’ve heard.

Final Words

I have since been to Kpalime, seen the sights, bought gifts for myself and others, tried all of the traditional Togolese food, been given a Togolese outfit, made many good friends, administered an injection, and done much, much more. I have done some incredible things here, and I look forward to taking all that I have learned here with me, continuing to grow in ways that I never knew could. All I had to do was take a little piece of courage.

Joie Waxler

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