Nurse Sheila Byrne-Harte
A Nurse Volunteer in Malawi
I was recently given an invitation by Father Tim to write about my experience as a volunteer in Malawi. Let me introduce myself. My name is Sheila Byrne-Harte. I am not a member of your parish but I have ties with your community through my sister and brother in-law Kathy and Anton Trant.
I am a nurse by profession and have spent most of my career working in Kilkenny. I took a decision a few years ago to retire early, with the idea of doing some voluntary work abroad. After a year, I found through Comhlamh, an organisation called The Billy Riordan Memorial Trust. This Trust was founded in 2004 by Mags Riordan who comes from Dingle and its purpose is to give health care to the people of the village and surrounding areas of Cape Maclear in Malawi.
Malawi is situated in central-east Africa. It is landlocked but one of its most notable features is the large lake, Lake Malawi, that stretches two-thirds of the length of the country for 580 kilometres. It is a comparatively small country, a little larger than Ireland, with a population of around 13 million. The people depend mostly on subsistence farming, growing just sufficient maize to feed themselves and their families. Food scarcities occur nearly every year during the months of December, January and February prior to the harvesting of the new maize crop. It is one of the poorest countries in the world; the average wage of those who work is 27 euro a month.
The main illnesses and disabilities encountered are malaria, HIV/AIDs and associated diseases, asthma, bilharzia (caused by a parasite from the lake), dysentery, and malnutrition; twenty percent of children die before the age of five.
At the present time of global economic uncertainty and financial turmoil, rising oil prices have hugely impacted on Malawi. In my two years of volunteering, the price of basic foods has doubled. This year a 50 kg bag of fertiliser necessary to grow maize is a staggering 60 euro. Since few families can afford to buy fertilizer, the maize crop will be very poor and food will be in even shorter supply than usual.
The Billy Reardon Memorial Clinic, where I work, is situated in Cape Maclear village on the southern shores of Lake Malawi. It provides a twenty-four hour health service for the one hundred and twenty thousand people who live within a radius of 20km of the village. It is run by a permanent Dutch doctor and mainly Irish nurses and medical volunteers. The daily attendance at the clinic varies with the seasons. Approximately eighty people attend during the dry season and up to one hundred twenty during the wet season.
A whole generation of thirty to forty year olds have died in the village from AIDs and a lot of children are being reared by their grandmothers. The clinic is now making a big difference at many levels by giving medical help, nutritional aid, health education and HIV/AIDs treatment. Deaths have been reduced enormously. The villagers talk of the four and five funerals every day prior to the establishment of the clinic. It has given the villagers a real sense of hope and pride.
The children are getting treated where before it was economically out of their reach. A nutrition programme for the under-fives has been set up and malnourished children are provided with extra feeding. They are reviewed by the doctor on a monthly basis. During the months of scarcity a further 800/1,000 children per day may need feeding. The village school is visited twice yearly to treat all children for bilharzia. Expectant mothers are given anti-natal care.
Last year a second Clinic for the treatment of HIV/AIDs was opened. It is a 12 bed facility which allows us to admit, observe and treat patients when necessary. Three members of staff have completed a training programme.
HIV/AIDs drugs are supplied free of charge. Patients get anti-retroviral drugs when they are in the 3rd stage of the illness, based on their symptoms. For the drugs to be effective patients should have a nourishing diet but this is almost always difficult. Monthly visits to the clinic are required to replenish drugs and to get further counselling. But this can also be difficult as a lot of the patients live outside the village and travel by foot can take all day.
On my return in April, I will complete a training programme for the treatment of HIV/AIDs and also joining us will be one of the existing local staff, bringing our team to five persons.
The second project I am going to develop with the support of the clinic is home care. We began this last year but I would like to extend it as many very ill and dying patients are unable to access the clinic. My main aim is to train the families to care for their sick and to give medical and nursing back up when necessary.
The children of the village are full of laughter and fun. They play soccer and hurling – Henry Shefflin look out! They swim almost before they walk and love showing off their aquatic skills. They have no material belongings and I have never seen a child with a toy other than a gift given by a volunteer. Anything they get they share I have actually seen a child tear a page of a magazine into pieces to share among his friends. At 5.30 every morning they come to the lake to wash, and inevitable one child will burst into song, the others harmonising. What a sound to wake up to every morning!
I must tell you a story about baby Martin who was brought to the clinic one evening. He was a premature baby just four days old and his mother had been buried that day. His older sister who brought him to us said he had not fed since birth. I was on call and I will never forget the work and patience that Martina, my Irish medical colleague, put into saving the baby’s life. She spent hours on her knees endeavouring to get a tiny intravenous line into the baby’s hand to give it fluids. Every so often we stopped to syringe 5mls of lactogen into the baby’s mouth to hydrate it. We persevered and eventually succeeded. We kept Martin in the clinic for a week until he was feeding small amounts from a bottle. His sister took him home but couldn’t care for him as she had a baby of her own and another five siblings to look after. On her request we sent the baby to an orphanage. Last year I went to see baby Martin whom I called after Dr Martina who saved his life. He was then a bouncing baby being cared for in a lovely orphanage run by an Italian lady. What a change from the wizen little baby I first encountered. Martin eventually will be returned to his family.
Working in Malawi and to be able to give of myself and in doing so help to make life a little easier for others is a privilege and the most rewarding time of my life.