Health clinics on wheels

Pakistan, November 8, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps health worker Dr. Antonia Maria and Fazia Mon, treat patients at a flood relief camp in Sukkur, in the Sindh province of Pakistan. Photo: Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Sahiba, 25, and her son Rehan, 2, fled their home in the Jacobabad District and are seeking treatment from Mercy Corps' mobile health units at a flood relief camp in a local polytechnic college. Photo: Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps

I met 25-year-old Sahiba and her two-year-old son Rehan while they were waiting patiently to see a doctor at one of Mercy Corps mobile health clinics in Sindh province. Rehan had a bad cough for several days, and his mother was alarmed.

Sahiba and her family have been living with 20 people in a converted school classroom. Many classrooms in Sindh have been transformed into homeless shelters after the flood, but most are now closing as the school year begins; resident families will be moved to tent camps. Sahiba’s village near the city of Jacobabad is still under a foot of water, and she has no idea when she’ll be able to go back.

Inhabitants of the school — especially women who often don’t feel comfortable venturing outside — would have a tough time getting medical care without the mobile health clinics. Mercy Corps has two of these facilities, each of which has a small, dedicated staff of medical professionals that offers examinations, treatment and medicines for free. Each day, these clinics pack into a van and travel to two or three camps and schools; the staff sees as many as 150 patients everyday who otherwise would go untreated.

The illnesses addressed by the clinics are varied and changing over time. Immediately after the floods, when clean water was sparse, diarrhea and dehydration were the major problems — cholera was present too. Three months later, as access to clean water has improved but prolonged displacement takes its toll, there’s more anemia, vitamin A deficiency, malnutrition and malaria.

Little Rehan is not a new patient. His mom brought him previously when he suffered a bad bout of diarrhea. His case was so severe that the doctor referred him to a local hospital, where he stayed for two days to receive injections, glucose drips and water enhanced with minerals and electrolytes. Today he’s diagnosed with a chest infection, an ailment that has become common as the weather gets colder and children don’t have adequate shelter.

I visited the second of the two mobile clinics in a tent camp of a few thousand people. The clinic had set up in a stifling tent where more than 30 women and children were crammed in waiting their turn. They welcomed me and quickly made room for me to sit among them.

Despite the illness, the heat and the tough conditions, the spirit of the tent was joyful. At the center of it was Dr. Antonia Maria, age 49, a dynamo whose energy and enthusiasm is nothing short of amazing. I watched as Dr. Maria adeptly examined and treated Bhani Allah Wahdo, a 60-year-old widow who’s suffering with stomach pains and a respiratory infection.

Dr. Maria, a veteran of missionary hospitals who says that her goal is to work among the poor, laughs and smiles easily with the women. I asked how they can be so happy in the middle of such a desperate situation.

“You can’t convey the right messages if you’re unhappy or scolding them,” she explains. “These women need moral support and comfort as much as they need medical care. Lots of ladies who come to me with tears in their eyes become they don’t know what to do.

“We develop a bond with our patients, they’re like our family,” she continues. “They love us because they know we love them.”