BANJUL, THE GAMBIA — Dr. Janice Hull leads a double life. She has a clinic in Century City and another in Inglewood.
Not Dr. Jeckle and Ms. Hyde. Rather, Dr. Janice and Mother Teresa.
The humanitarian side bubbled up strongly when she saw patients for free in Guinea Bissau as part of the Lighthouse Medical Missions March 31 and April 1. Together with team leader Dr. Robert Hamilton, a Santa Monica pediatrician, and nursing students, they saw 450 patients in that nation. It’s called blitzkrieg medicine.
Sadly, the mission was cut short as an unprecedented Ebola virus outbreak in adjacent-nation Guinea whipped fears. Doctors opted to play it safe and return 100 miles north by bus to The Gambia, where they had started their medical foray. Premature clinic closure seemed prudent given that 25% of Ebola contagion is health workers.
“I thought I was going to see more pathology, but we didn’t get to see the more serious cases because we returned so quickly,” Dr. Hull said. Lighthouse Medical Missions have run week-longs clinics in Africa since 1998, and usually more serious health cases arrive later as word gets out.
Rumors of Ebola outbreak in Gambia fizzled April 3 when health officials here got back negative results from the grade 4 lab in Dakar, Senegal, of the samples of two patients with symptoms who had recently emigrated from Conakry, the capital of Guinea where more than 80 have died.
While the virus kills 90% of infected, transmissions is not quite so easy. It’s not airborne but requires exchange of bodily fluids. While in theory mosquitoes and ticks can transmit it, in practice there has not been evidence, said Dr. Lawrence Czer, who led the Lighthouse team in The Gambia.
The explosion of Ebola on April 1 sparked panic among some Lighthouse team members. In addition to the deaths in Conakry, there were cases reported in Liberia and fears of it spreading to Gambia — all on April 1. The two cases followed here were quarantined at a hospital only a block away from where we were staying.
As a result, two-thirds of the team members left April 2. Only 16 chose to weather out, come what may, sticking with the original travel itinerary.
But as quickly as Ebola burst onto world health scene, it faded.
Those of us who stayed visited Kunta Kinteh Island in The Gambia River, where slaves were infamously imprisoned before shipping to America in squalor. We saw the fort where Europeans oversaw transactions in humans and punished severely slaves who dared to resist, as did the ancestor to Alex Haley, the author of Roots.
“It was moving to be in the place of my ancestors,” said Dr. Hull. “It was an overwhelming experience.”
An obstetrics gynecology doctor, Hull mostly practiced general medicine, with an emphasis in tropical diseases, while in Guinea Bissau. She said she was surprised that virtually everyone suffers pain. The women, in particular, feel chronic pain, since they carry water and firewood to their homes and they handwash clothes.
West Africans frequently suffer from high blood pressure and diabetes. The doctors also saw cases of river blindness, which is cases by a worm that swims around in your eye. If observe closely enough, you can see the worm. Everybody, without fail, was given a chewable dewormer pill.
Without proper laboratory testing, the doctors rely on their interpretation of the symptoms, like old school doctors, to diagnose and prescribe. Before starting the clinics, veteran Lighthouse Medical Missions doctors give a crash course on tropical medicine to practitioners new to Africa.
Dr. Hull flew out with the team Aug. 6. “It’s been an amazing experience,” she said. To participate in a medical mission, click on Africa medical missions.
This article appeared in the SantaMonica.Patch.com on April 5.