Progress in Rwanda stuns local doctor

He has traveled to African nation to train staff at clinic

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

Published:

 

Had someone told Dr. Jim Heid that within six months a small African town would turn an administrative building into a functioning medical clinic, he never would have believed it.

Had that same person told Heid he’d return to Rwanda this year, 18 months later, and the clinic would still be operating, he would’ve thought the person crazy.

But that’s exactly what happened. And, in fact, the Ndengera Clinic now has physicians trained to detect and treat cervical cancer before it claims the lives of Rwandan women.

“It’s incredible,” Heid said simply.

In January 2010, Heid flew to Gisenyi, Rwanda, for a scouting trip; he and a group of local physicians and

volunteers planned to visit the African town that summer.

Heid met with the pastor in the town who helped coordinate the trip. Heid thought the trip would consist of the medical professionals holding a weeklong medical clinic in a classroom. But the pastor had other plans.

The pastor told Heid he planned to convert an old administrative building into a functioning medical clinic by the time the group of Americans arrived in June.

“I told him, ‘There’s no way it’s gonna happen,’” Heid said.

Yet, over the course of the next few months, it did. The group arrived in late June and spent most of the visit training the Rwandan doctor and nurses who were to work at the clinic.

“By the end of a week and a half, it was there, open, and they’ve been seeing patients since,” Heid said.

Another team of local nurses and physicians visited the Ndengera Clinic in April of this year and trained Rwandan doctors and nurses how to identify and treat cervical cancer.

Physicians apply a diluted vinegar solution to the cervix. Precancerous cells absorb more solution than healthy cells and turn white. They then use a gun-like device with a hose attached to a carbon dioxide tank to freeze the precancerous cells.

Cervical cancer is the most lethal cancer in Rwanda.

“They don’t have annual pap smears,” Heid said. “That’s not an option for them.”

Last month, Heid, who works in family medicine for Legacy Medical Group, returned to Gisenyi with his daughter, Christina. They stayed in the town about a week, which included Thanksgiving and Christina’s 16th birthday.

Heid spent his time in the clinic, following up on the cervical training the physicians received seven months earlier. He and the Rwandan doctors saw patients, discussed the findings and decided on treatment.

“In Africa, a lot of the medical training is book learning. They don’t have the practical learning,” Heid said. “That was my goal. Not to perform medicine but to teach.”

Heid also taught the doctors how to insert intrauterine devices (or IUDs), which are a form of birth control. Overpopulation is a concern in Rwanda. In a country with limited resources, IUDs can be helpful in preventing pregnancies, Heid said.

Heid said the doctors and nurses in Rwanda were eager to learn; they took a week off from their paying job to spend time in the clinic with Heid.

Before he left, the physicians and pastors were asking Heid when he would return. Heid said he will likely make another trip to Gisenyi in a year and a half.

“I’m unimportant in the big scheme of things,” he said. “Someone going is important.”

“They appreciate that someone is coming and spending time with them,” he added. “The doctors and nurses are thirsty for knowledge.”

Marissa Harshman: http://twitter.com/col_health;http://facebook.com/reporterharshman;marissa.harshman@columbian.com; 360-735-4546.