By Carolyn Peterseim

Today is day 11 in Yaoundé, Cameroon. I’ve learned a lot, but in the order that I expected. First of all, I keep relearning to be humble. Secondly, I’m learning to wait. Thirdly, I’m experiencing the medicalsystem and the caregiving that goes on in Yaoundé Central Hospital and on ASCOVIME’s campaigns. Lacking space in this blog, I will try to
highlight a few details thus far.

I’ve been dropped into a society whose pace doesn’t match the one with which I grew up. “Tranquille” is a good descriptor for the Cameroonian attitude. That and “Pas de souci” – “No worries.” Where I expect there to to be a front desk, I stumble upon a string of people to ask along the way to get where I’m going. Where I think a taxi will take me directly where I’m going, the driver picks up five more passengers, and drops them off first.

My mistakes are hilarious to my colleagues and my host family. I make them either because of mistakes in Cameroonian French or cultural differences. The only possible response is to laugh along with them, as these errors are a way to learn about the language and culture here. And amidst my confusion, I love it here. The people I meet are incredibly welcoming to me. I have had the opportunity to listen to life stories, ambitions, and dreams.

With our hosts in a village in southern Cameroon on my last weekend of campaigns. Dr. Georges Bwelle is pictured in the center in the striped shirt.

With our hosts in a village in southern Cameroon on my last weekend of campaigns. Dr. Georges Bwelle is pictured in the center in the striped shirt.

My host, Dr. Georges Bwelle, is a charismatic leader here and an inspiring figure. His dream, an ASCOVIME volunteer center, is becoming a reality; I visited the construction site on Sunday. So far, two of the three large buildings are under construction: Dr. Bwelle’s house and the three floor volunteer center, with rooms for students, nurses, doctors, or volunteers and their families.

To get there is a 45-minute drive into the Ewando-speaking countryside along well paved, then not paved, roads. We passed a village on the way, Simbock, and many banana trees. From the top of the partially constructed top floor of the volunteer center, Dr. Bwelle spoke of a wall that would stretch around the compound, pointing out where in the brush it would sit. He has an exciting plan for each of the rooms on this floor whose walls are now a brick high. His is a lesson in patience because he started construction in 2011 and adds to the Center as money comes. This lesson applies to the afternoon it took me to get a page photocopied, a half hour to catch a taxi, and the countless lines in which I’ve waited. It is an art to continue to enjoy life while waiting, and as an American, I have a long way to go.

On the way back from the clinic, we stopped by a house. Someone flagged us down because the madame of the village was there and wanted a quick word with Dr. Bwelle. They welcomed us with peanuts and a chart of a young girl who had been in pain recently. It was her hemoglobin exam and she had sickle cell disease, drépanocytose in French. This is a very patient (and very poor) people to wait for a passing doctor. Dr. Bwelle told her to go to the hospital the next day, but I have no way of knowing if she arrived.

Last Tuesday, I started in the sickle cell center, or “service” with Professor Wonkam and our team- a Cameroonian doctor, a Nurse
Practitioner, a translator, and me. As the student, I have the opportunity to get to know these professionals and learn from them
about the Cameroonian healthcare system and sickle cell disease. The center has one hall for only sickle cell patients and a very caring staff.

There are many differences between the healthcare system of Cameroon and the US, but I will focus on three big ones that have struck me so far.

Firstly, the biggest benefit of the Cameroonian healthcare system that I’ve seen: everyone here is part of a close family. The patients are almost always accompanied by someone. Someone in their extended family often will sleep by their bed if the patient has to spend the night. Also, the doctors call the patients and each other by familial terms; for example, the doctor might greet an elderly male patient by saying,”How are you, my father?”

Packing the ASCOVIME bus with all of the supplies we would need for the second weekend of campaigns, this time in western Cameroon.

Packing the ASCOVIME bus with all of the supplies we would need for the second weekend of campaigns, this time in western Cameroon.

The biggest challenge is the money. In the hospital, the patients pay for everything, from examination gloves to the housekeeper for their room, if they are hospitalized. In the surgery, the doctor asked for another blade and it was out of stock. The doctor replied, “If there isn’t any, there isn’t any,” and turned around and walked back into the operating room. And if the money isn’t up front, the treatment doesn’t happen.

The other striking difference I’ve seen in my time here so far is in malaria treatment. People don’t go to the hospital for malaria, they go home and rest. It seems to be like having the flu in the United States. The exceptions I’ve seen are the pregnant mothers, children, and those who’ve had repeated cases of malaria within a short amount of time. Fortunately for children 5 and under with malaria, the government pays for their treatment at the hospital.

But I see yet more differences between the Yaoundé Central Hospital and the work ASCOVIME does. As this was my first campaign, I spent
most of the weekend learning my role as a volunteer and taking lots of notes. I started in Labo, giving Alere rapid HIV test. Two nurses and I gave 153 tests in about six hours. Then, I went to the surgery, where I stayed until 1:30 Saturday morning. I saw two circumcisions, a partial colon removal, and several hernias. What struck me the most is that the patients were under local anesthesia or an epidural injection that blocked the feeling below their ribs. They had their hands above their heads and the doctor would speak to them during the surgery, reassurances or jokes. The generator went out and they were doing surgery by flashlights, headlamps, and emergency lights that a nurse would hold above the operating table.

As for my interviews, I’m working on meeting the heads of the maternity ward, the pediatric malaria ward, and the drépanocytose
ward, and I’d like to interview the volunteers on ASCOVIME. I am having an incredible experience here so far.