NEWPORT, VT - Some people take time off to travel to tropical paradises such as Florida, the Caribbean, or Hawaii to relax and unwind. Larry Sisson, MD and his wife, Nancy Sisson, LPN, as well as two other friends in the medical community went on a 10-day trip in November, but it was far from a vacation.
The group traveled to the rural reaches of the African country of Ethiopia to provide the people of the impoverished nation with modern healthcare.
“It was a real eye-opener,” Dr. Sisson said. “It was one of the most depressing things I have seen in my life, but it was one of the most fulfilling things I have ever done because I knew we made a difference.”
Dr. Sisson is a surgeon with North Country Surgical Associates at North Country Hospital. His wife is a nurse in the hospital's Surgical Services Department.
The Sisson's were joined on the mission by Joe Lupo, MD and his wife, Mary Jo Lupo, RN, of New Hampshire. Dr. Lupo is an anesthesiologist, while his wife is a surgical nurse. They worked at North Country on a full-time basis between 1996 and 1999. Dr. Lupo currently serves as a locum anesthesiologist at North Country. This was the Lupos' third medical mission to Ethiopia. They recruited the Sissons to join them on this recent trip.
The couples traveled as part of a Boston-based group called Wide Horizons. Several other New England medical providers also made the trip, including a gynecologist, surgeons, a pediatrician, nurses, and an Aids researcher. The hospital they worked at while in Ethiopia was built by Wide Horizons.
“The trouble is there aren’t any African doctors to work in the hospitals,” Dr. Sisson said. “They use us for free labor.”
They began planning for the trip in June, including collecting medical supplies they would use during their mission.
The 15 hour flight to the African country was tedious enough, but Dr. Sisson said it was nothing compared to the overland journey which was required after landing at the airport in Ethiopia. Riding aboard a small bus with their supplies, and the supplies of others making the journey, they rode for another 14 hours. A 40-mile section of the trip, in which they wound up and over 9,000 foot high mountains, alone took them about eight hours.
They lived and worked in an impoverished, mountainous community pronounced “Bona”.
“We are rich compared to them,” Dr. Sisson said. “Nobody has a car, and nobody has running water or electricity. They make and grow just enough to feed themselves. There is little in the way of medical care.”
People in that area die of illnesses and injuries which seldom kill people in the United States and other industrialized nations, he said. It isn’t rare for people to cut themselves and then die of blood poisoning. Death during childbirth, of the mother and/or baby, is an all too common occurrence.
The hospital and working conditions were far more primitive than the Sissons had ever worked in before, but he said the medical teams who rotate in and out of the hospital make the best with what they have. Dr. Sisson and his group were provided with a cook, a driver, and two translators to help them communicate with their patients. However, he said, because residents of the region speak about 70 different dialects, even with the translators there was often a communication barrier. However, in spite of that he was confident they were able to provide excellent healthcare.
No matter how tough life is in the region, he said the people were happy, friendly, and appreciative of their work at the hospital. Without the hospital and the foreign doctors they’d have little in the way of modern healthcare.
“One patient I saw walked two days to see us,” Dr. Sisson said. “He’d cut his hand almost a month before. When I saw his injury we took him right into surgery. He would have most likely lost his hand if we hadn’t been there, but we were able to save it.”
No matter how big or small the problem, he said the people were so appreciative. “It doesn’t happen every day that you can make a difference in somebody’s life but I think we made a difference there every day.”
Even after his long, arduous trip to the rural hospital, and working 12 hour shifts, six days straight, followed by a long journey home, Dr. Sisson said he arrived back home to the United States, and to his job at North Country, refreshed to take on any challenge.
“I came back with a renewed energy,” he said. “I have a new appreciation for how good we have it.” However, he emphasized that he, his wife, and the Lupos' will not forget about the people of Ethiopia. They plan to take another medical mission to that country in the future.