My Medical Trip to West Africa in April, 2014
Jun Xu, MD
1. Before the trip
On April 19, 2014, I landed in the dry heat of Senegal Airport. After one year away, I feltlike I had returned to the land of my soul.
I had gone to West Africa last year for my first medical mission. It had been difficult to face the patients, and especially the children. My heart sank to hear to them talk about their dreams to go to build a better life and to go to school.
I always believed that it is important to teach a man to fish, not just give him a fish. After I returned to the US, Paston Nilson and I decided to build a trade school in Africa. There are many plumbers, electricians and carpentries in Pastor Nilson’s church. We realized that we would have enough teachers for this school. We expected the students could return something to the school after they learn these skills and eventually the school could be self-sufficient.
A fundraising party became the most important issue in my mind. We needed 400 guests in the hopes of collecting about $40,000 contribution. I sent emails to my patients, more than 5,000 in total. Yet, I only sold 40 tickets. I was beside myself.
But on the day of fundraising party in Christ Church, waves of people came in. We pulled out all the tables in storage in the Parish Hall after we realized so many people were coming in. We could hardly hold all the people. 250 people came, and we filled to maximum capacity. My guests enjoyed the food and Chinese acrobatics, and we received just a little more than $40,000 donation. I had achieved my goal!
2. Ebola Virus
Ebola virus suddenly out broke in Guinea and other West Africa countries in February 2014. Based on a recent study, the virus gets in the human body by consuming semi-cooked bat meat. The virus quickly duplicates in the human body and destroys the endothelium cells of capillary vessels. The main symptom is high fever, bleeding everywhere inside the body. Ebola has a more than 50% death rate. In August 28, 2014 Science published an article about the virus’s DNA sequence, where five of the authors had sacrificed their lives to collect the samples from 78 patients. Ebola is transmitted mainly through body fluid, and no evidence has shown the virus can spread through airborne contact. There is no effective treatment for the virus, and no vaccine could prevent this illness.
Before I left for Guinea Bissau, there were more than 100 patients diagnosed with Ebola and more than 70 patients who had died in Guinea. Guinea and Guinea Bissau used to be one country and were separated in 1974. People were able to cross the border freely; therefore, there was a high chance to spread out the virus from Guinea to Guinea Bissau.
My wife and friends tried to persuade us to cancel the trip. Pastor Nilson’s church also was very concerned about the safety of our 15 team members. The Senegal Embassy rejected the visa of 6 out of 15 team members until the last day before our trip. However, we were determined to go. Even if there was Ebola in Guinea Bissau and Senegal, we might be able to help the patients there.
When we arrived in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal, we realized there wasn’t any special tension in Dakar. People were very relaxed and did not seem to be paying much attention to the danger of Ebola. I stayed one night in Senegal and finally arrived Guinea Bissau. The temperature was 105 F. Two of our members were sick and sweating. The hot, dry atmosphere attacked us from everywhere. There was no air-conditioning, no fresh food, and we felt the waves of heat penetrate each cell of our bodies all the way into our brains. It just felt so hot! We left two members at the base, and we were ready to see patients.
3. Meeting the patients I attended last year.
The patients were waiting for us
My heart was pounding when our bus was roaring on the twisted small road. The bus incurred tremendous dust surround us. The vivid images were still fresh in my mind. I used to sweat and cry in this jungle village. Many tree branches blocked the road, to the point that we had to stop to cut the branches to make our bus move forward.
A patient sat in the shadow of a big tree, a walker next to him. His left ankle had been amputated
He was amputated of his left ankle because the diabetes before I saw him, his wound was slightly infected, but under control. My son, Jimmy, a medical student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Medical School, cleaned out his wound and I gave him antibiotics and anti-diabetes drugs like last year. However, he looked at me without any sign of excitement. It seemed he did not know me. I guessed that his vision must be damaged by diabetes.
Crowded patients came in, many whose faces were so familiar.
“ Hi, I know you, I gave you antibiotics for high fever!” The patient shook his head with apathetic expression.
“Hi, I remember you.” I said to another patient.
“ No, I never saw you before”, a determined answer shocked me.
“That’s not true…you only brought four of your children to me this time!” I said straightforwardly.
She had brought 6 children to me in last year. I had felt so sad when she looked at me with despair and helpless. I gave her antibiotics and multivitamins and took pictures of her family. I had very often spoken to my friends about her after I returned to US. She silently nodded her head and admitted she had seen me before.
This mother has six children
I love taking photography, especially portraits. I edited many pictures I took in West Africa last year. The unique characters of my patients made them unforgettable. I always think about them during my dreams. 100 patients passed by, only two patients smiled at me and told me they were happy to see me there. Most patients were indifferent. Poverty, ignorance and superstition prevail in this jungle village.
Under the hot 115F weather, we attended about 250 patients a day. One day we saw 450 people, and we were exhausted that we did not even have the energy to get on the bus. However, we cannot change their fate with the challenge of poor hygiene, lack of water and roads, no education, which are beyond our capability.
Crowded Patients were waiting for us
Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique flowed in my heart. The cello’s weeping was like a small knife cutting my soul. The melody sounded like spring, stretching the strings of sympathy deep in my heart. No hope, there was no any hope, I desperately thought, as my mind went with Tchaikovsky to beg God for help!
4. Ebola or Malaria?
The second from the left is Salsa
Salsa is one of my team members who went to West Africa for the last 5 years. Salsa went earlier to Guinea Bissau than I did this time. When I arrived there, he immediately reported to me that he had a sudden onset of fever and chills with swelling below both knees. He felt a burning sensation and fatigue in entire body. When I examined him, both his knees were swollen and red. He lay on the bed like a poor lamb with his eyes tearing. Although I was worried that he might have Ebola, I decided his symptoms were not severe enough and gave him quinine to treat him for malaria and told him to drink a lot of water.
On the second day, our team had gone to another village. When we returned to the base, Salsa was gone. He had come back to US and went directly to the ER. Thank God, he was confirmed for malaria.
Looking at his empty bed, I recalled his stories. Two years ago, he had hired two African workers to install the brick wall at the base with his own money. He saw his worker, Qunta, drinking some yellowish soup, with some thick stuff floating in it. He tried to taste the soup, and he immediately vomited. Qunta told him it was made from cardboard. Salsa began to cry and he asked Qunta to lead him his home. Eight people, Quanta, his wife, and 6 children, lived together in one small room. His wife was cooking the cardboard soup in a pot on three stones outside the room. Qunta told Salsa he only had a job two weeks per month. Making $8 per day, he could only support his family with minimum food and shelter. Salsa had never thought there was such a poor family like Qunta’s, He did not say a word as he left the house.
Salsa returned with 2 kg of beef, two chickens, eggs, and vegetables. Quanta’s family had never enjoyed food like they did that night. They slept with full stomach, every cells in their body were very happy to soak the nutrition they lacked for long time.
The next day, Salsa gave Quanta a key. Salsa had bought a house in Senegal with $8,000, and he would let Quanta live there for free.
5. Heroes in Africa
When someone asked Newton about his success, he replied, “if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Many of my friends admired me for going to West Africa. However, I only dare to say, I am lucky to stand behind many giants like Pastors Ottavia, Carlos, Nilson, Luciana, and the rest of our team.
From the left: Melisa, Pastors Luciana, Nilson and Ottavia
We all know mother Teresa, however, not many people know Pastor Ottavia. He was a soccer player on the Brazilian national team before he went to Guinea Bissau 39 years ago with his wife. He was the second person in the country to establish a church and school. However, in the1970s, the communist party took over the country and Pastor Ottavia and his wife were deported. After the communist party stepped down, they returned Guinea Bissau and worked hard again. Now they support about 40 African pastors, 15 churches, and 3 elementary schools with 450 students. Pastor Ottavia’s two children were born in Africa without a good education until one day a missionary pastor from California they brought them to the US to attend high school. The Ottavias have no any personal property—they still live in one small room in the missionary base.
Pastor Carlos, a college football player in US, received his green card after graduation. However, he decided instead to go to Africa with his young wife and daughter. As we talked about his permanent residency in US, his eyes blinked toward me like a deep, clean lake without any wave. He is willing to give up the best in his life to serve the poor people in Africa.
Pastor Nilson, a pastor with a few churches in Port Chester, NY and Bridgeport, CT, went to Africa 13 years ago, his soul was attracted by the bright-colored sun in Africa. 2014 is his 13th trip to Africa, every year, he brings about $100,000 worth food, vegetable oil and other supplies. His church also supports the elementary schools and local churches. He brought his son Andrea with him, he said he may not be able to go to Africa someday, his son would take over this job.
Pastor Luciana, a retired colonel from the Brazilian army, went to Africa with his wife, Melisa, and their one-year-old daughter eight years ago. He is building a missionary base with 50,000 SF His wife is in charge of 3 elementary schools with 450 students. His daughter attends a private school in Guinea Bissau. They live in a house with a deep narrow road. There is no city drainage system. In the rain season, all the garbage is washed to the road, and in the sun, flies and mosquitoes occupy every space in the air within the unbearable smell They cannot open their door. I cannot believe that I would bring my family to live in this environment. I definitely would not allow my daughter to grow up in that condition. It takes a special kind of sacrifice.
6. Future Plan
On my last day in Africa, I was called to the base office. Two local contractors were waiting for us to sign the contract. We are planning to build up a trade school where we would like to teach local students with the skills of electrician, carpentry, plumber and painter, etc. This is a 20,000 square foot building with a budget of $100,000. My friends and patients have contributed $60,000, I told Pastor Ottavia that I still own him $40,000.
We signed the contract, the land behind us will be the future trade school
I also have another dream to build up a hospital in the leprosy village in Senegal. I went to the leprosy village and stayed in the village with my team members and son, Jimmy, for two days in last year. Many patients were amputated because of lack medical care. I would really like to help them if I could raise enough funds.
My dear friends, I can honestly tell you that all your contribution will go to Africa people 100%. All my team members paid for their own airfare, food, room and board. I also self-funded for the medicine I brought to Africa. Let’s work together for the future of Africa people.
If you would like to support our plan, please write your check address to
AGWV (Assembly of God World Vision)
Mailing address: Jun Xu, MD, 1171 E Putnam Avenue, Riverside, CT 06878, USA
You will receive a tax deductible receipt.