Imagine you’re about to give birth to a beautiful baby. But for some reason you aren’t given an epidural, a common practice to relieve labor pains in the United States. You’re contracting, but oddly the doctor is nowhere to be found—there’s just a single nurse who’s dividing her time in half between yelling at you to push harder and thrusting down forcefully on your abdomen. And when you finally perform the miracle of life and are holding your little one in your arms, the nurse informs you that you’ve got six hours to leave the hospital. Now, imagine that this hypothetical scenario I just described wasn’t a hypothetical scenario at all but instead an accurate portrayal of childbearing in the sub-Saharan African country of Zambia.
For seventeen years, Davidson’s very own Professor of Biology and Associate Dean of Faculty, Dr. Verna Case, has been providing students with a summer experience that both highlights the bleak inequalities of rural Zambian healthcare delivery and exposes them to the vibrant culture and deep-rooted traditions of the Lozi people. This past summer, I was lucky enough to join Dr. Case and eight other Davidson pre-medical students on their journey to Mwandi, Zambia. This four-week program, which culminates in a fall semester course back on campus, allows students to spend three weeks interning at the local Mwandi Mission Hospital, doing everything from shadowing doctors and clinical officers to ensuring newborns are properly vaccinated at the Maternal & Child Health clinic to even assisting the antiretroviral treatment (ART) clinic with their outreach efforts distributing medication throughout the African bush. Weekend activities included performing devotionals at the Orphan & Vulnerable Child (OVC) program, meeting with well-respected traditional healers, and interviewing Mwandi residents about their healthcare practices, all designed to help us better understand the relationship between the hospital and the surrounding community.
As Americans often do, it was tempting to simplify the situation—to look at the low stock of drugs, the burgeoning Zambian tariffs on electricity, the low doctor-patient ratio—and assert that the hospital’s many issues could be easily solved by throwing more money at it. But after a few weeks on the job, there were too many other factors to consider. What contributed to the palpable apathy of the healthcare staff? Why did patients insist on visiting the traditional healer before seeking treatment at the hospital? And what happens to patient files when they enter the void that is the “Records Room?”
For a large portion of our time in Mwandi, we were accompanied by Dr. Angela Stephens, an OB/GYN resident at the Medical College of Georgia. During her short time at the hospital, Dr. Stephens executed a number of deliveries and shared obstetrics-related information with us and the hospital nurses. But it was only when she left, and I was staring down at a baby’s head helplessly tangled with the umbilical cord, fighting to join our world, that I became aware of how much we take our American healthcare system for granted.