Health Care You Can Believe In

March 2, 2010

by Pat Ryan

It was an odd convergence of events that struck me as I was driving across Monterey Mountain in the snow last week. President Obama was hosting the health care “summit” in Washington and I was keeping up with the partisan back and forth on the radio. Meanwhile I was thinking through the pieces of a presentation I was to give at the North Knoxville Rotary Club at noon. The presentation was on health care, but with a twist.

Where the American health care debate is a bubbling pot of division, partisanship, exaggeration, name-calling, special interests and all sorts of good old politicking, the health care I was going to be talking about was a recent event where people of good will got together to do the right thing for the right reasons.

Last fall a group of Rotarians from the Upper Cumberland were getting ready to travel to a small village called Ateiku in the Western Region of Ghana as part of a multi-year international service project to build water wells. People in and around Ateiku, like in much of the developing world, had few safe sources of drinking water and had been suffering the debilitating consequences of chronic diseases as a result. Through the leadership of the Crossville Rotarians to mobilize clubs like the two in Cookeville, money was raised, matched by the Rotary Foundation, to build 29 wells in the villages and hamlets around Ateiku.

Clean water is a game changer in the war on poverty and efforts to develop the undeveloped world, and just one well, for example the one built by the Cookeville Breakfast Rotary Club, can serve as many as 16,000 people, who otherwise would be fetching water, portered in buckets from long distances out of unsanitary creeks. The team that was flying to Ghana had a mission of checking the material condition of the wells in place, performing chemical purity tests of the water being pumped, and coordinating for the next round in the well construction project.

The water project is a great story and a tribute to those involved in making it a reality. But this is a different story about health care. While preparing for the Ghana trip the team was asked by the hosts in Ateiku for help to arrange a health “fair” – a visiting clinic that could be organized in the village. Ateiku is a hub for dozens of smaller hamlets in the area but even as the major “destination” in the region it lacks the basics of medical facilities and personnel. The idea was to invite health care professionals from cities in Ghana – they were available at no charge but needed financial support for transportation, supplies, medicines and equipment.

It was a last minute request for help and the cost was not insignificant – about $5000 for the day-long health clinic – but it was a “Godfather” moment, an “offer we couldn’t refuse.” The plan was for medical doctors, nurses, lab techs, eye care professionals, a dentist and others, to be transported from around Ghana to this small village to care for about 1000 or more people who very rarely get even basic health care. So we set about the crash program of raising $5000 from Rotary clubs around the local district and donations from members of the public who could be reached with information about the Rotary programs in general and the Ghana health fair in particular. A web site was set up to show people what the work was all about. The response was quick and overwhelming. It didn’t take much to explain it to our friends and neighbors. These were people who had next to nothing, who needed everything – including medical care. They suffered from the routine medical needs you would expect to see here in Tennessee plus many chronic diseases we have long been able to forget about, and some we have never heard about – typhoid, hepatitis, malaria, guinea worm parasites, HIV and more. With little time left the traveling Rotarians raised the money and were able to tell the hosts in Ghana the funds were in hand and they could organize the clinic.

It was a great success. Over a thousand people who were seen on October 31, 2009 in Ateiku were cared for and they now know there’s a place called Tennessee where there are people who care enough to send doctors to see their elders, nurses and lab techs to investigate their illnesses, eye doctors to give their children glasses and dentists to ease their chronic pain. That was the health care story that we had to share with our friends in the Upper Cumberland and other parts of the state who know that “it is better to light one small candle then to curse the darkness.”

Pat Ryan is a retired sailor and writer. He lives in Cookeville. You can learn more about this story in videos and photos at: www.RotaryGhanaProject.com

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