About a week after I returned to the States in July, I received word that a 14 year-old girl, Y., in a village west of Niger's capital had been severely burned from the chest up. Her father works in the SIM village medical clinic run by a tremendous nurse, J., who was involved in her care from the beginning.
J. and I began emailing . . . she needed a crash-course in burn care. We wrote back-and-forth about the wound healing process and the need for early and frequent movement, how (and why) to stretch, the necessity for compression garments down the road, and the reality that this would be a very long process (both physically and emotionally).
J. shared all of this with Y. and her family. They understood and expressed that they were willing to do what was necessary, for as long as it took.
At several phases in the healing process, J. emailed me photos of Y.'s wounds . . . not quite the same as being there in person, but good enough, considering the desert and ocean that stood between us. Consulting from so far away was intimidating, but it was the best we could do.
I got in touch with a colleague, G-L, who works elsewhere in west Africa . . . an OT who has started a center where two local tailors make burn compression garments . . . she emailed me PDF files of the measurement forms, which I forwarded on to J.
After a long stay in the national hospital in Niamey (where the family had to go to the pharmacy to purchase their own gloves, gauze, saline, meds, etc. before Y. would be treated by the nursing staff), Y.'s wounds had healed enough be able to go home. G-L and her team pulled off making, sight-unseen, the shirt and hood that Y. would need to wear for the next year; which were carried back to Niger by another colleague who 'happened' to be in town.
The shirt fit!!
But the hood didn't. Y. would need a face mask.
It's been a while since I've pulled a mask . . . and even then I was always assisting an 'expert', in a hospital, with sufficient equipment. This time, I would be on my own . . . in a village . . . making due.
Needless to say, I was intimidated! Talk about in over my head!!
I received a donation of specialized splinting material from a colleague in the US, from my Temple Hospital days . . . I purchased my very own Dremel and heat gun . . . and started saying my prayers!
Arriving in Niger, I still needed to find suitable strapping material (the mask has to stay on somehow!), strong scissors that can cut and trim the thermoplastic, and plaster of Paris.
I started at the 'hardware store' . . . they had nothing. So I made my way to the labyrinth we all call Le Grand Marché. For a few hours I wandered crowded aisles, searching, attempting to describe for vendors these bizarre, foreign items I was looking for.
Stall after stall I used a combination of all my languages . . . French, Hausa, a little English, but mostly charades . . . we laughed a lot, me and my hoard of strangers. And eventually, I found what I needed . . . or at least viable substitutes.
So tomorrow, I will venture out to the bush where J. and I will make a mold of Y.'s sweet face, fill it with plaster, heat the plastic in a gas oven, pull the mask, turn on the generator to spot-heat the pressure points, and pray it all works!!!
So here's to using what we've got and making it work! Stay tuned for Part II!