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Doctor Unexpectedly Runs Wards in Cameroon


August 24, 2010 – Georgetown’s Dr. Marilee Cole got a surprise this summer when she discovered the Cameroon hospital she visits every year with her residents lacked a doctor in three of its 45-bed wards.

The next surprise came when she and her three students were asked to run the wards.

A Challenge

“We were excited to be part of such a large initiative, but I didn’t know if my residents were prepared after such a long journey,” says Cole, a professor of medicine. “Despite the long hours and little rest, “they were always willing to do more work.”

She said the group, which worked at the hospital for a month, ended up responding to more calls and patients than any other team she had previously traveled with.

An Altered Tradition

This summer was the 11th year that Cole brought residents to Banso Baptist Hospital in Cameroon. Normally the Georgetown doctor and residents take two days to adjust to a six-hour time difference before meeting with physicians.

This time, Cole and third-year residents Geeta Karnik, Mary Radley and Rachel Kon were assigned to the wards the minute they walked through the hospital doors.

Preparation a Key Factor

Before the trip, the residents met with Cole regularly, got their vaccinations, raised money to cover the cost of the trip and familiarized themselves with the tropical and other diseases they would treat.

“We work extremely long hours to prepare for the trip, so we’re always ‘ready for battle,’” Cole notes.

Family Counts

The residents found the residency rewarding – and learned a lesson about the importance of family members in health care.

“I treated a young patient with Stevens-Johnson syndrome, and even though he was in extreme pain, his family never left his side,” Kon explains.

Patients at the hospital are assigned a caretaker – usually a family member – who often bathes and feeds the patient and sometimes even sleeps under his or her hospital bed.

“The caretakers are very patient, tend to the needs of the sick family member, and are incredibly proud of the doctors who do their best to help,” says Karnik. “It’s extremely powerful, and motivating.”

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