NOTE: Ian Lock of Wisconsin is one of a group of 39 cancer survivors, doctors, caregivers, and advocates who traveled to Africa in January as part of a life-changing mission trip sponsored by Society partner Above+Beyond Cancer. The group started their trip visiting the only public hospital in Kenya. Their goal, in support of our global strategy, is to provide counsel and help raise funds for a hostel (similar to a Hope Lodge) in Kenya. In this first-hand account, Ian, a survivor of osteosarcoma, shares how the trip impacted his perspective.
A few things should be known. I am a white, middle-class male from a loving nuclear family and a supportive community. These were all things that affected my cancer journey, and therefore affect my perspective as I tell you about the absolute need for a Hope Lodge in an entirely different country.
Cancer in Kenya has nearly a 70 percent mortality rate, with 27,000 of the 39,000 cases diagnosed every year resulting in death. Fifteen percent of all of the diagnosed cancers are children, as opposed to less than one percent in the U.S., and the mortality rate is nearly 90 percent. Mortality in children alone is nearly 60 percent higher than in developed countries. Knowing this didn't prepare me for being in the hospital where so many of these people are treated.
While being escorted through the building, one thought pervaded my consciousness: "I don't belong here." That was for two main reasons. First, the hospital was empty. The only public hospital in the country, that usually serves more than 2,000 patients a day, was a ghost town. The doctors had been on strike for nearly a month. The adult oncology floor, where more than 200 patients are usually treated each day, was barren.
The second unsettling fact was, and still is, life in the hospital. While I was in treatment, I received one-on-one care by a dedicated staff in a private room in a hospital 60 miles from home that gave some of the best care in the U.S. I don't point this out to be crass, but as a point of comparison. While walking through the hospital, the adult in-patient rooms had eight beds each, and the pediatric care unit had more than twice as many in a single room. Patients were separated by, at most, a curtain.
When we entered the pediatric care unit there were several children still there, but one thing was remarkably absent -- parents. I know it was a privilege that may have been almost unique to my situation, but I was never alone during treatment. My mom stayed every night in the hospital and was there every morning when I woke up. On the rare occasions that was not possible, my dad or grandparents were there. These children had been dropped off to receive treatment, alone in a hospital that I could not imagine receiving my own treatment in.I realized how often I take for granted the privileges that were afforded me. The access to care, the health insurance, the support of a family and a community.
At the end of our tour we returned to the comforts of our hotel, and I couldn't shake a feeling of guilt. Why was I here? What was the purpose of my visit to the hospital? I walked around that hospital taking pictures of sub-par treatment situations. I talked to a few patients, saw the kinds of lives that they lived in the hospital. But, what good did I do? Was I just a self-important tourist there to purely witness the situations and leave thankful and grateful for my own situation? Over the next three days we spent at the hospital, I grappled with this question, and on our last night in Kenya I realized that I it was necessary for me to be more, to do more.
Kenyatta National Hospital serves the entirety of the Kenyan population, around 44 million people, as the only public hospital in the country. While there are private hospitals, for the individuals who travel hundreds of kilometers to receive treatment, the cost of public medical services and travel is overwhelming already. Patients stay with relatives if they can, sleep in crowded rooms in the slums, sleep in the unoccupied beds of the in-patient ward, or sleep in the courtyards of the hospital between treatments. Many patients don't receive the full regimen of treatment because they leave the hospital due to the financial burden of lodging. The proposed Hope hostel provides an opportunity to support patients from around the country, and to remove barriers to care for years to come.
This hostel represents a significant advancement in the ability of patients from throughout Kenya to access the relatively affordable and lifesaving services of Kenyatta National Hospital. Until its completion, I will be an advocate, fundraiser, or spokesperson. I am not an expert on cancer in Kenya, I am not a trained medical professional, and I admittedly don't know enough about the treatment of underprivileged groups even in the U.S., but I will continue to advocate and learn more about the impact that I can make both here and abroad.