(Summer ’15) Katelyn Sweeney, ’18

Katelyn Sweeney (’18, Mechanical Engineering)

This summer, Katelyn will be traveling to Mbale, Uganda to work with CURE International Hospital. CURE is a children’s neurological surgical center that provides lifesaving surgeries to patients suffering from spina bifida, hydrocephalus, brain tumors, and other cranial and neural abnormalities. Katelyn will be providing biomedical technical support by updating many of their current technologies along with providing pre- and post-surgical psychological support to the children and their families.


Post 7-A Lesson in Patience

Today I learned that food service is an intricate process and that frogs have very capricious bladders.

But before I get to that, some background info:
This week, the team (whom I will introduce in my next post) is working a mobile clinic in Lira, Uganda. It’s a totally different experience than working at the actual CURE Hospital. Our site is located behind a church (don’t think the big cathedrals in the U.S., think warehouse) in a dirt field. We currently have about 150 people living on site and are expecting more throughout the week. Basically the purpose of this clinic is to provide care and checkups to the families here who otherwise wouldn’t have access to CURE’s resources, as we are about 5 hours from Mbale.
The team is staying at a lovely hotel just outside the camp. We commute in every morning at 7 am and leave around 8-9pm. It’s a long day, but the work so far has been very rewarding, and it’s nice to come home to a nice hotel.
Or so I thought (time for the frogs):
This morning I woke up to a high-pitched buzzing in my ear. To my dismay, a mosquito had spent the night inside my mosquito net. Thankfully I’m on antimalarials, and I didn’t get too badly bitten. After 15 minutes of  trying and failing to kill the pest, I gave up and decided to get up and start my day early.
Barely after I exited the net I heard a soft slapping noise near my feet. I looked down and saw a huge frog on the floor of my bedroom. Before I could catch it, it leapt behind my dresser. I promptly moved any and all belongings on the floor to a table so as to prevent the frog from hiding. I finally caught it when I returned from work in the evening. As I was transporting the little bugger outside, it was kind enough to empty it’s bladder onto me. How thoughtful. Frustrated, I went inside only to find a second frog leaping around the room. Thankfully this one could control its excretory system.
Other than the frog fiasco, things have been pretty good in Lira. There are lots of previous CURE patients here who are getting checkups, and seeing the progress they’ve made is incredible. I’ve also made lots of friends with the kids who love to play soccer (football) and volleyball.
The only frustrating part is the food service, which is a big part of our job. It seems like no matter how we do it, some mother is yelling at us for serving too slow or improperly portioning. Everyone is a critic I guess. But when you have limited food for 150 hungry people, portioning and speed have to be kind of meticulous. With the language barrier things are even more complex. However, it’s good practice in patience. The last thing we want to do is yell or antagonize anyone. The patients are stressed enough as it is. Plus, it is rewarding to see the whole camp fed, and people are usually very thankful once they have their food.

Overall, it’s been an adventure so far, and we’re excited to see what the week has in store!


Post 6-Hard Things

Over the past few days, I have become aware of how woefully unprepared I am to work in this environment. I’m not necessarily referring to Uganda (although that has been quite a culture shock), more so I mean in a hospital. I’m an engineering student. I’m good with my hands, I love critical thinking and problem solving, and when there is a mechanical problem, I can usually fix it with hard work. In a hospital, there are some times when that is simply not the case.

Yesterday was full of highs and lows. I’ll start with the good things. Over the past week, I was working with a mother named Tedi and her daughter Emilly, who was two months old and suffered from hydrocephalus. A few days ago, Emilly had her ETV, and I counseled Tedi through it. Yesterday, Emilly was released and sent home with a very positive prognosis. Seeing the smile on Tedi’s face as she left was wonderful.
As amazing as it is to send home a healthy child, it must be remembered that this is not always the case. Early in the morning, I passed a couple who were waiting for their four month old daughter to get out of surgery. Based upon the conversation, we assumed it was a case of hydrocephalus and reassured the parents that their child would be fine. What we didn’t realize was that alongside hydrocephalus, that baby also had a significant brain tumor. There was nothing the doctors could do.
At 2pm yesterday, their baby girl passed away.
I was there when they broke the news to the parents. The spiritual center team I’m working with was called in to help counsel them. At first it looked like the parents were ok (or as ok as they could be in that situation). After a few minutes, however, the father left the room to grieve with a counselor one-on-one, and the mother was in hysterics. My heart broke as I heard her cry out to us, pleading with us to tell her that her baby girl was not really dead, asking God why he would do such a thing.
There are no good responses for why this happens. It’s not fair that children can die so early, and I was left shocked at the sudden raw emotion I was supposed to help control. In the end, we just had to create a safe space for the parents to grieve. As an engineer, I wanted to fix this. I wanted to say or do something that would dry their tears or make them understand. In the end, I realized that I cannot understand their pain. I have never lost a child, I have never given up everything to find medical care for a loved one (in a developing country no less). I’m coming to terms with the fact that people are not machines. I can’t fix them because I’m not them, and everyone needs to mourn differently. Tragedies like this are uncommon at CURE, but they happen. I may be in over my head when they do, but I’m learning that sometimes the only things I can do are small, and I can only hope that others in their lives will do small things to help heal them as well.
My deepest condolences to the family. Thank you to CURE’s doctors and nurses who work so hard every day and who continue to save lives on a daily basis. Thankfully this is an exception, not the rule. The staff here is exceptional and this organization is continually blessed by them.

Post 5: Safari Weekend!

This past weekend we headed up to Murchison Falls for a safari weekend! I won’t write too much for this post, I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves. Special thanks to the Johnsons for organizing this, as well as to Ishma and Deo, our driver and guide respectively. Also thank you to Paraa lodge for such an amazing stay. Enjoy the photos!

We actually saw this guy driving to our hotel pre-safari! He came right up to the car.
Safari selfie!
Came across a pride of 9 lions (2 female, 1 male, 6 cubs). The females weren’t too happy to see us…
… the dad seemed pretty chill though
The last thing we saw on the first night was this herd of giraffes stopping for a quick drink at dusk!
Tried to take a selfie with the giraffes, but the focus was off 🙁
Hippos! Anyone who knows me knows I’m terrified of hippos, so this was a tough photo to take.
Safari weekend included a river cruise on the Nile!
In front of Murchison Falls
Finally got a better photo with the giraffes
This pack of African Buffalo were really curious about our safari vehicle
Why yes, National Geographic, I would love to be a photographer for you.
The Crested Crane, Uganda’s national bird. The locals believe they possess special powers and often use their feathers in love potions.

All in all it was a fantastic trip! It was a really great way to refresh before heading back to work at CURE on Monday.

Post 4: Wait, Where am I?
Yesterday was my first TIA day.
TIA stands for “This Is Africa.” It’s a phrase one of my hosts uses to describe days where we just have to remind ourselves that this is Africa, not the US.
“But Katelyn, didn’t you know you were in Uganda? Why is this news?”

It’s so easy to forget that CURE is in Eastern Uganda sometimes. The surgical units and wards have a different design, but there’s still that streamlined feel that US hospitals herald as a sign of efficiency and safety. It makes you forget that the resources and culture are extremely different, and that (as I said in my last post) my techniques may not carry over well. There’s a learning curve, and yesterday I experienced it.

The compound where the IT team works

Here’s what happened (skip to bolded line if you don’t feel like reading technical details):

We arrived at CURE and Derek (one of my hosts and the Director of the hospital) hands me two Chromebooks and a CCTV DVR Security System that are not working and need repair, so I get started on the first laptop. Juma, Martin, and Tom John (IT staff, IT intern, and maintenance staff respectively)  come along to help. I plug it in, power it up, and it starts the boot up process as normal. Then the screen goes black for a moment before rebooting. Repeat indefinitely until I hold the power button to force a shutdown. “Ok,” I thought. “I’ve seen this before. It’s just a corrupted system file. I can do this.” Using one of the working laptops, I used a USB to reimage the Chrome operating system onto the external drive.
Here’s where the TIA frustration came in.
In order to access the recovery OS from Chrome, the computer needs internet access. The internet in rural Uganda isn’t exactly fast. This means I couldn’t load images to check which model of Chromebook I had, so I made an educated guess based on company and year of sale. Then I sat and waited for 3 hours for a process that should have taken 30 minutes max. I hadn’t planned for that, so all of a sudden I was in a foreign workspace with new acquaintances (with whom I am now friends), and technology that isn’t working as anticipated. So, patience not being my virtue, I set to work on the CCTV system. That didn’t take too long (opened the case, reset circuit board connections, powered up, problem solved), so I went back to watching USB sticks load. Yay.
Eventually the download finished and I powered up the broken laptop in safe mode to reset it. An error message immediately popped up. My heart sank. My guess was wrong. I had downloaded the wrong model’s OS. Back to square one. The computer was becoming even less responsive and Juma looked on and laughed, saying “if you can get that thing to work, you are a computer Jesus.” Blasphemy aside, I was flattered, but now the pressure was on.
Eventually the proper OS downloaded and I repeated the process. This time it was better. I chatted with my new coworkers and helped them repair some other tech while we waited. The download eventually finished, so I plugged in the USB and the system loaded like a charm. I could have danced I was so happy. Finally, a product of success. I am computer Jesus!
My work space
Okay non-techy readers, you can come back now.
Here’s what you missed. Project #1: Fix a broken laptop. The laptop has a damaged system file, something I thought I could fix. I forgot that the resources are very different here. It was frustrating, I made some mistakes, but in the end it worked itself out and now the hospital has a laptop for their doctors to use, which is huge.
Ok, now I’m going to totally change gears.
Today I also had the opportunity to watch a surgery on a 2 month old baby with hydrocephalus (the accumulation of fluid in the brain, usually caused by infection early in life). That was an incredible experience. The head surgeon was a man named Peter. Peter is a Ugandan who did his medical degree at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and passed his oral and written comprehensive  exams on the first try. For those of you who don’t know, that is IMPRESSIVE. Passing both on the first go hadn’t been done for 25 years, and is still unheard of. He is an incredibly smart guy. The surgery started as a basic endoscopic third ventriculostomy/choroid plexus cauterization (easy, right?). This procedure consists of a small incision into the brain where an endoscope is inserted so that the surgeon can look around for the choroid plexus and burn a small opening where the cerebrospinal fluid can drain. This releases pressure on the brain and treats the hydrocephalus. However, after the initial cauterization it became clear that the baby’s brain was far too infected to proceed, so they transitioned to a shunting procedure. This one is much more invasive. It involves the passing of a plastic tube with a backflow prevention filter from the brain to the abdomen to mechanically drain the fluid. Watching the surgeons and their incredible precision and grace in the face of such a serious procedure was incredible. At one point a surgeon came in and asked how we were doing in the observation room and it took all my self-control not to shout “Are you okay?!? I don’t have to fix a baby’s brain; you’re doing all the heavy lifting here!!”
After about an hour, the doctors finished up. The surgery was a success, so hopefully I’ll be able to meet the patient tomorrow when she is released from the ICU.
I’ve also had time for some fun while I’ve been here. A local restaurant called Endiro Coffee is a favorite of a lot of people here, and it’s a social hub so I have met a lot of people. Plus their Chai Tea is nirvana in a mug. I want to bring the entire place home with me. I also got to play basketball with some of the neighbors last night. Zeke, a guy visiting from Kenya was an unbelievable force on the court. Thankfully he was on my team the entire time. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m awful at basketball, so I was really just there for the social aspect. Regardless it was a ton of fun.
Overall, it’s been an adjustment working here. The work ethic, timing, and resources are different, but I’m slowly getting used to it and making friends along the way. TIA. This is Africa. It’s new and not what I’m used to, but I’m excited to see what’s in store.

Post 3: Off the Deep End-Part 2: The Proper Meaning of “we”

Okay, now for part two of today’s post. This one might be a touch longer, because I might rant a little. Sorry in advance.
Today the Johnsons took us to Mt. Elgon for the day. It was about 45 minutes North of Mbale, out of Bugisu territory, through Karamajong communities (the Karamajong are a nomadic people who live in Eastern Uganda. They speak a Nilotic language rather than the national Bantu), and eventually into the Gishu territory on the slopes of Mt. Elgon.
We hadn’t been parked for 30 seconds when the car was surrounded by Gishu kids and teenagers offering to guide us. I later asked the Johnsons if this was common practice and they said it is rare that you are able to hike in Uganda without this happening. They were all extremely nice though, and the two oldest, Isaac and Martin, led the way up the mountain.
When picturing this hike, try your best to get the image of a well-maintained Appalachian Mountain Club range out of your head. This was a trek through dense vegetation on a muddy trail that was maybe 18” wide at best. Thank god for our local friends who joined us, because they were immeasurably helpful in braving the hike.
At the top of the trail we came across Sipi falls. According to Isaac the falls are about 100m tall (~330 ft), and they were absolutely incredible. Interestingly enough, the falls allow the area around them keep moist all year, even in the dry season, creating an interesting microcosm of vegetation that you cannot find anywhere else in Uganda.
My dad and sister are visiting for the week; here’s us at Sipi
Remember what I said about the people in Uganda being friendly in my last post? I wasn’t kidding. We passed a girls’ boarding school on the way down. There must have been at least 200 of them and every single one shook my hand and greeted me on the way past. They did the same for the rest of our group. They all were still smiling big, despite how treacherous the hike was. Further down, it began to rain, and as a consequence I began to slip. Without hesitation, the girl in front of me, Mary (who couldn’t have been older than 8) turned and grabbed my hand and held it the rest of the way down. We got to the bottom and chatted with the other village kids for a while, and Mary used what English she knew (a striking amount for someone of her age speaking English as a second language) to introduce me to her friends.
Ok, now for the rant.
One thing that I saw a lot of in Uganda were outside organizations placing footholds in towns and communities in the name of charity. Even on the plane we saw numerous large groups of teens on mission trip headed to various parts of Uganda. Now, I’m a big believer in the “if you teach a man to fish” saying, so this bothers me quite a bit for many reasons. First of all, it is a big drag on Uganda’s economy. If tourists and missionaries are constantly coming into communities and distributing handouts, it destroys any potential for industry or domestic development.
The main facet that bothers me though is the reason that so many people from developed nations come here. In so many cases, it is wealthy people coming to perform some sort of altruism in order to make themselves feel better.
DISCLAIMER DISCLAIMER DISCLAIMER: This is in no way true of all expats who come to developing nations. Many choose to work alongside the existing culture and industry in order to help rather than dominate when facilitating change. Bravo to them, this is the ethic I hope to imitate when I start work on Monday.
Anyways, the main issue with this “holier than thou” attitude that is fostered by so many tourists cancels out the effectiveness of their projects. If someone considers their own image and ideas at the forefront of whatever service they are trying to complete while ignoring all cultural guidelines, they are by default going to remain with their westernized mode of thought rather than becoming a part of the community and considering their true needs. The Johnsons (who’ve been working at the hospital I’ll be starting at for over a decade) phrased it nicely, saying, “they’re answering questions that no one is asking.” So often their short-term solutions fall short because they neglected to work alongside the people and consider what would actually be beneficial in that specific cultural setting. Sure, it may have been great in America, and sure, their hearts are in the right place, but the methodology does not cross over well into every cultural setting due to the nuanced distinctions between them.
Moreover, this kind of thinking facilitates an internalized stratification between them and the people they want to “serve.” We have this stigma that all developing nations consist of malnourished children with all sorts of diseases who are sad all the time. Yes, there is malnourishment. Sure, there are diseases. But when you set those as their only qualifiers, you automatically eliminate their other humanizing qualities. There is an immediate assumption that they aren’t intelligent or compassionate or funny. This is an absolutely false mode of thought. Thus far, my experience has been that the Ugandan people love to laugh and are immensely intelligent and business-minded. I would have been completely overwhelmed if it hadn’t been for their guidance and friendship. And if anyone ever tries to insinuate that my friends are at all less intelligent/kind/sophisticated/etc.. than people in developed nations, expect an even longer rant than this one 😉
To avoid hypocrisy, I have to say that I have given into the stigma in the past. I don’t, nor will I ever understand what it is like to grow up here. I possess a westernized view of how to solve problems, and as such one of the toughest parts of this project will be keeping an open mind and understanding that I am not the expert. Thankfully I will be working alongside CURE’s local IT people who can provide better insight into what the real needs of the organization. My focus now turns to exactly what the Johnsons said: I just need to make sure that my answers match the questions they’re asking.

Post 2: Off the Deep End-Part 1: The Road So Far

Disclaimer: I’m posting twice today because I have so much to say. The two posts are very different, but will introduce what I am predicting will be undertones for my entire trip.
I didn’t have many expectations for what Uganda would be like before I left the US. I knew it would be different, but from there the specifics were kind of hazy.
To say that culture shock has set in would be an understatement.
The first thing I noticed was the traffic. There are literally no traffic laws at all. It is chaos. The worst is the motorcycles—called “Boda-Bodas” here—who choose to ignore the already minimal rules of the road. It is an interesting setup. Fortunately, my hosts are incredible, calm drivers, so despite the craziness of the road I have never been in any fear of an accident.
On a more positive note, the other major difference was how kind the people are. Everyone waves and says ‘hello,’ regardless of whether you know them or not. Socialization is a huge part of this culture. It’s not uncommon to see large groups of people sitting on the side of the road talking to each other and gesticulating wildly. Even in the short time I have been here so far it has become clear that community is a major part of life here in Uganda, and the people have been so open and welcoming to me as a visitor here.
Okay, now I’ll backtrack a bit and summarize what has happened so far.
After around 20 hours of travel we finally arrived in Entebbe around 10pm on Thursday. Our hosts for the week are Derek and Julie Johnson, who I will talk about at length in later posts. They are nothing short of wonderful. Derek came to the airport to pick us up and drive us to the Boma hotel in Entebbe where we would stay the night (it’s too dangerous to drive at night, so we couldn’t get to Mbale that late). The next day we began the trek across the country to Mbale. We made stops in Kampala (Uganda’s capital city) and Jinja, crossing the Nile River between the two. The journey is not incredibly long distance-wise, but due to the crazy roads, safe driving required the entire day. We finally got to Mbale around 7pm that evening.
A map of Uganda. We traveled from Entebbe (bottom center bordering Lake Victoria) to Mbale (right, near Kenya in pink region). For reference, Uganda is around the same size as Texas, maybe a little larger.
Mbale is a beautiful town. Lots of lush trees and flowers. The center of town is a busy community hub with plenty of restaurants and stores. It is far out from any of the more touristy areas of Uganda (ie Kampala and Jinja), so it gives a better glimpse into what some of the culture is like. I hesitate to generalize this culture to all of Uganda due to the tribal divides that exist across the country. For example, Mbale is largely Bugisu people, and they are far different than the tribes in the North/West.
Overall Uganda has been a lovely and very welcoming place and I cannot wait to see what the following weeks bring.
Endiro, a small coffee shop in Mbale where we had lunch


Tuesday, June 15, 2015

Post One: Pre-Trip Excitement

T-30 hours until I depart for Uganda!

The past few days I have been cramming in a lot of packing and last-minute preparation. Due to space limitations, I can’t bring too much luggage, so I somehow fit all of my clothing and shoes into one carry-on (I’m giving myself a high-five for that. Master traveler in the house!). I’ll be bringing a backpack along as well for other miscellaneous things I need on the plane and to use when hiking or travelling beyond the hospital.

So here it goes! The last post I’ll be putting online from the United States. Before I leave, I’ll outline some of the information about my trip.

Wait, Katelyn, where are you going?

Starting tomorrow, I will be spending a month working at CURE International’s hospital in Mbale, Uganda! The hospital is a neurological surgical center for children that treats a wide variety of brain ailments such as hydrocephalus, spina bifida, tumors, and other maladies. They perform around 1,100 surgeries per year.

What will you be doing?

While at the hospital, I will be working on two separate projects. For the first two weeks I will be doing some IT work for the hospital (upgrading computers, improving patient databases, fixing various technology around the hospital, etc…). Hopefully this will help the doctors have more efficient access to their technology, allowing them to focus on their work rather than distracting tech issues.

For the second project I will be working with a team of incredible women from the US and UK (whom I will introduce in an upcoming post) to do patient-oriented volunteer work both in the hospital and in a mobile clinic.

Will you have time for fun stuff?

I think the work itself will be really fun and rewarding, since I really enjoy fixing things and working with people. However, there will be some time for non-work activities, so I will have a chance to explore the local culture and some of the fun things Uganda has to offer, so stay tuned for some future posts for that.

Overall thoughts?

I’m so excited! Too excited for words actually. This trip certainly will pose many challenges, but I hope that the experience will help me expand my perspective through a new cultural lens, as well as provide some valuable workplace experience. I can’t wait to see what this trip has in store!

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