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April 4, 2012 / catherinebwrites




Me, Alex, Alfred and Kieran
Martin, Alfred and Kieran.

We set off on March 3rd and flew from Heathrow, overnight, to Lusaka, the capital of  Zambia.    “We”, were Kieran O’Driscoll, E.N.T. surgeon, Alex Fay, Senior Audiologist,    Martin Stone, Audiologist and hearing aid wizard and me.   


We arrived crumpled and dazed and, before I could get my bearings, Sr. Bernard had whisked us through passport and customs.   Sr. Bernard is “a friend of the corpse” and she has free rein in Kenneth Kaunda Airport.   She is the airport chaplain and, as a woman of formidable presence, all the airport staff defer to her.   Besides, she got a hearing aid from E.N.T. Zambia.  

            At our hotel we admired the weaver birds and crocodiles in the pool by the bar.   

Not viewing guests as dinner

No, they’re not man-eaters; they’re moved into the wild before they’re old enough to start viewing the guests as dinner.   We unpacked, had a shower and went off to the E.N.T. unit in Beit Cure Hospital, Lusaka.  

Beit Cure is our base in Zambia.   The E.N.T. operating theatre was built and supplied by Irish Aid, and their mobile clinic was supplied by Gorta.  We met our Zambian colleagues, Alfred, the Audiologist, Charity and Evelyn the nurses, Pattison, the ear-mould technician, Daniel, the maintenance man and mobile clinic driver and Ute, the resident German E.N.T. surgeon.   The rest of the day was meetings, checking equipment, organising the coming week.  
            On Tuesday we were up at the scraic of dawn and off to Chainde in the four-wheel drive lent to us by the S.M.A. fathers.    The mobile unit travelled with us.   Chainde is just outside Lusaka.   It is where the S.M.A. fathers have a church and a community centre.   Kieran and the nurses set up in the mobile clinic and we audiologists set up our audiometers in the sacristy.   
While I was waiting for the patients to be sorted out, I took a look around.   There were classrooms for vocational training and a class for  special needs children.   I  went to visit the class.   It was a mixture of children with physical disabilities. hearing loss and social deprivation.   The kids gathered round clamouring for sweets.   I had none but I suggested that, instead, they might like to look inside my handbag.   Children love looking in handbags.   I showed them my purse, my comb, my packet of tissues and the shiny purple case of a lipstick.    I took it out and opened it .
“Would you like some?” I asked one little girl.
Me!   Me!   Me!   Me! Me!

Of course she did!  


I put a little lipstick on her lips and next thing I was mobbed by a jostling chorus of “ Me. Me.  Me.  Me. Me.  Me!”   And that included boys.   I got them to queue up… sort of… and the more enterprising boys  came back for a second application!

            My first patient was Francis, a young man in his early twenties.   He was frowning with the strain of trying to hear.    He had a significant hearing loss.   Some losses can be medically treated others can’t and his was the untreatable kind.   However  I knew that he’d benefit from a hearing aid.    He went to see Kieran, just in case, Pattison made the ear-moulds and Martin fitted him with aids to match his hearing loss.   Later he returned to my room with a big grin on his face.   Now he could hear.  

Francis with his new hearing aids.

            There weren’t too many children at the Chainde clinic so most of the time I was testing adults until Mary arrived.   She was four.   The problem with hearing tests is that the you need the full co-operation of the patient.  With adults, you ask them to raise their hand when they hear the whistle, put on the headphones and off you go.     But children are different.    They get easily distracted.   They get squirmy when  their legs are dangling from adult-sized chairs. They may not understand the instruction.      They may raise their hand when they hear the first sound and then leave it up and not  know what to do when they hear the next sound.    They get worried, lose confidence and, in an effort to please, they  give false responses and you have to start all over again.   So, when you’re testing  children you need a child-sized table and chair.   You need a box of bricks and you need a drum.    You demonstrate what you want by banging the drum and getting the child to put a brick in the box each time she hears.    But we had no child-sized furniture, no bricks, no box, no drum and not even a  common language.   Mary only spoke Nyanga and so did her mother. 

I just had to hope that Mary wouldn’t get too squirmy.   I decided to get her to tap the table with something each time she heard the sound.   I searched the room for something she could use.   There was a rack of Mass vestments.    But you can’t tap a table with a chasuble!   There was a shelf with a large missal and some books.    There were some missionary magazines, and copies of a parish newsletter.    Then I spied some small bottles.   Jackpot!

Note bottles on bottom shelf.

    One was labelled “Chrism”, it was very sticky.   Another was labelled  “Oil of Catechumens”, that was sticky as well.   The third was labelled “Holy Water.”   Okay, I thought, let’s go with the Holy Water.  Then I had to find an interpreter.   I found a Zambian nun who had come with another patient and commandeered her.

            Maybe the Holy Water performed a miracle or maybe Mary was a sensible, intelligent child.   She copped on immediately and, despite the fact that her four-year old legs were dangling, that she spoke no English, that I spoke no Nyanga and that we had no colourful, child-friendly toys, she didn’t get squirmy and she didn’t lose focus.   She listened, responded perfectly and performed a successful hearing test.   She had a hearing problem but it was of the treatable kind.    She went to the mobile clinic and Kieran looked after her.
Kieran at work in the mobile unit.
            At the end of the day we went back to our hotel tired but happy.  FOR MORE INFORMATION:


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