WHEN Kirsty Luescher was studying medicine, she never imagined in her first years of practice she would have to teach her patients the pain they were suffering hadn’t been caused by witchcraft.
She couldn’t have guessed she might have to interrupt her clinics to jump on a table to escape a deadly snake or she would need to become an expert in what to do for patients with parasitic worms crawling under their skin.
But at just 29, Kirsty, Simon Tolmie and two of their university friends set up a charity providing medical care to remote communities in Zambia.
Kirsty and Simon, who have since married, founded On Call Africa after they visited the continent for what they had planned would be a six-month placement with a charity.
Now, five years on, they are proud to know their team of volunteer doctors, nurses, midwives and non-medic supporters have helped their charity give urgent medical care to more than 30,000 patients.
And as they prepare to mark the Scottish-based charity’s fifth birthday, Kirsty admits she is still deeply moved by the sights she sees.
She said: “I remember a clinic I was running for women with severe back pain and when I asked what they thought was causing their back pain, all 30 women there said it was caused by witchcraft.
“Every morning these women walked 5km to their nearest well, then walked back carrying a container with 20 litres of water in it on their heads.
“In the afternoon they would be out manually planting seeds or harvesting crops to feed their families.
“But they thought their backs were sore because someone had placed a curse on them. I said I didn’t believe in witchcraft and they all laughed.
“I did my best to teach them that their backs were sore because of the strain of carrying the containers of water on their heads and from the work they were doing in the fields.
“Five years on, they haven’t stopped believing in witchcraft but they know their backs will stop being so sore if they take painkillers and have a few days’ rest.”
Kirsty, now 34, who lives in Glasgow, splits her time running On Call Africa with her work as a palliative care specialist at Strathcarron Hospice in Denny, Stirlingshire.
She was first inspired to visit Africa by her parents, who met there in the 1970s. She and Simon visited in 2009 and were shocked to learn many of the rural areas were cut off from medical help.
Kirsty said: “Simon and I were still training when we decided to take time out and spend six months in Africa and six months in Australia.
“We volunteered with an American-based charity in Tanzania, led by a doctor who ran mobile health clinics.
When we told him we were so moved by the work he was doing and might like to do something similar in the future, he told us that if we didn’t do it now we would never do it.
“We didn’t make it to Australia. Instead we recruited the help of two friends from our time at St Andrew’s University – Gavin McColl, who is also a doctor, and Malcolm Spence, who works in international development.
“We went to Zambia and met with the health minister, who told us the areas that most needed support. We visited as many different areas as we could, then picked nine which were the furthest away from medical cover but we could reach by car.
“In 2011 we started a pilot project and it was so successful and we built up such good relationships with the communities, we couldn’t stop.”
The charity have a base in Livingstone, Zambia, from where they send teams of volunteer doctors and nurses to run mobile health clinics in remote areas.
The medics treat everything from malaria and HIV to snake bites and their mobile clinics visit each community every month.
They run immunisation programmes for all under-fives and if they can’t treat a critically ill patient, they transport them to the nearest hospital.
Kirsty said: “I have done clinics where I have jumped on a table because a deadly snake has appeared and it is not uncommon for us to be faced with patients with worms under their skin or other tropical diseases.
“But it must be one of the most rewarding jobs in the world.”
To mark their fifth birthday, the charity are launching an appeal to help more children in Africa reach their fifth birthday.
Kirsty said: “A donation of £5 would enable us to treat five children with diarrhoea or malaria, provide a full immunisation programme for a child or treat 20 children suffering from intestinal worms.”
‘The people there are lovely, just amazing’
KIRSTY told how when the team first arrived, many of the people they met had never spoken to anyone from outside their village.
She said: “We looked very different to them and it was a huge culture shock – but we spoke with the village elders and they welcomed what we were planning to do.
“The people who live there are the most lovely, amazing people.
“On the one hand, they have nothing – there is no electricity, no running water and they don’t really deal with money. They just grow their own crops, raise their families and are incredibly happy.
“To run our mobile clinics, we have to take everything we need with us – from our doctors and nurses to all our medical equipment, medicines and even a small laboratory for diagnosing.
“We can’t do operations. We can’t send people for CT scans, give them oxygen or refer them on to a specialist who is just up the corridor – as we would be able to do in the UK.
“If someone needs more help than we can offer – perhaps if they are suffering from severe malaria – then we can use our transport to take them to the nearest hospital.
“But if someone presents with an illness like cancer that has spread, then what we can do is
educate them on managing symptoms, and give them pain relief.
“We see a lot of death and that is always hard to deal with but we can also see our work is making a huge difference.
“We are doing simple things – but we are saving lives.”
Source : Daily Record and Sunday Mail
Photo Credit – Wattie Cheung