In The Gambia, June 2006
At 4 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, I was startled when the lights came on; the lights never came on after 2 p.m. on the weekends. The adrenaline really kicked in when I was invited to observe an emergency cesarean section - a first for me. When the infant emerged I felt my heart racing from excitement and awe!
But no matter how many times the technician suctioned out the nose and mouth, the infant did not utter a sound. After twenty five minutes the technician and nurse both gave up. The surgeon later explained that the baby had suffocated in utero. If only they had had enough power to use the ultrasound machine for each pregnancy, he would have detected the problem earlier and been able to plan the C-section. Without early detection, the C-section became an emergency, moreover, the surgery had to wait for the generator to be powered on. The loss of precious minutes meant the loss of a precious life. At that time, in that place, all I could do was cry.
And later, when the maternity ward was too hushed, I cried again. A full-term infant was born weighing only 3.5 pounds. In the U.S., the solution would have been obvious and effective: incubation. But without reliable electricity, the hospital did not even contemplate owning an incubator. This seemingly simple solution was not available to this newborn girl, and she perished needlessly.
Reliable electricity is at the forefront of every staff members' thoughts. With it, they can conduct tests with electrically powered medical equipment, use vaccines and antibiotics requiring refrigeration, and plan surgeries to meet patient's needs. Without it, they will continue to give their patients the best care available, but in a country with an average life expectancy of only 54 years of age, it's a hard fight to win.
In the U.S., 2007.
Reliable electricity is not even an afterthought for me; it's part of the fabric of my life. I'm working on a laptop, cramming for my physics exam, waiting for the train. Tonight I'll enjoy bright lighting at my former elementary school's fair, where I'll be displaying everyday articles from the Gambia. After a comfortable night's sleep, tomorrow will be dedicated to creating a presentation for business leaders on a computer and printer. There are nearly a dozen meetings with potential donors next week, each in a pleasantly lit room. In between meetings, I'll be studying for the medical school entrance exams, telephoning friends, listening to music.
To say that my experience in the Gambia was life-changing is not overstating the case. I feel luckier than ever: healthcare is my passion, and I am able to study medicine in one of the world's most electrically and medically advanced countries. I smile knowingly at light bulbs, and the thought of studying after sunset actually makes me happy. The medical equipment available to us is staggering, the tests amazing, the procedures mind-boggling. It's a lot to learn, and it all takes reliable electric power.