For Immediate Release

Contact: David Jwanier, media relations associate, 610-740-3790


(Left) Cedar Crest College Nursing Instructor Lisa Heelan and nursing student Michelle Flores hold a couple of babies during their recent trip to Tanzania.

ALLENTOWN, PA (April 2, 2009)—While describing her recent humanitarian trip to Bukoba, in the northwest part of Tanzania, Cedar Crest College Nursing Instructor Lisa Heelan walked across her office and picked up an artwork given to her by Haya Tribesman. The piece, which depicts a silhouetted farmer sowing the land against the sunrise—made from dried out and blackened banana pulp— simply makes Heelan feel good.

“I really like it because it’s about planting seeds,” she said with a smile. “They say that if you give a man bread you nourish him once, but if you teach him to plant, you nourish him for a lifetime. It is important for any and all programs to be sustainable.”

What she and four nursing students from Cedar Crest College did during spring break from March 7-14 was bring thousands of dollars in medical equipment—including a colposcope, 50 specula, biopsy equipment, more than 1,000 pap smear kits, etc.—to the Ndologe Hospital and School of Nursing so they could perform badly needed gynecological health exams.

During the weeklong effort, Heelan examined more than 200 women with assistance from her students, and she also taught a local nurse-midwife how to perform the examinations, which is critical during the 51 weeks a year the Cedar Crest contingent is back home. Healthcare services are a big problem throughout northwest Tanzania, where 10 hospitals serve millions of people, and only one has the ability to perform surgery, according to Heelan.

“The medical director has the skill to do the routine exams, but he will be doing the follow up treatments to the abnormal pap smears. It was very important that someone on his staff step up and learn to do the pap smears.  Late in the week, Witness Richard, a nurse-midwife from the Ndologe Hospital, took the initiative to learn to do the exams herself. She stepped up and did a great job,” said Heelan.  “Knowledge was transferred, and it’s comforting to know that women in the community will be getting the healthcare they need.”

Aside from the gynecological health exams, Cedar Crest students visited other areas of the hospital, including the labor and delivery and pediatric units, as well as the HIV clinic. They performed blood pressure and preeclampsia screenings, as well as other basic tests. They also went into the community to vaccinate local children against polio and other diseases, and visited a nearby elementary school to provide students with toothbrushes and toothpaste, and illustrate the proper way to brush.

Senior nursing student Michelle Flores, of Allentown, said of her experience: “This was a very rewarding opportunity that I had to vaccinate the children because I knew that I was helping them by protecting them against disease and long-term illnesses. I had been to Africa before, so I kind of knew what to expect. During this trip, I was able to take a step back and really think about why I chose to become a nurse and how rewarding the profession really is. This journey has helped me determine where I want to take my career and what I hope to accomplish in the future. “

In many ways, senior nursing student Kristen McKeon of Burlington, NJ, had mixed emotions about the effort.

“I helped with HIV testing and had to inform two women around my age who were also pregnant of their positive results. This was heart wrenching and the most earth-shattering thing I had done. Although I did not know what they were speaking in Swahili, I could read the horror and sadness on their faces. Would they be able to afford treatments? Will they live a healthy enough lifestyle that opportunistic infections will not occur? Will they be able to live long enough to see their children grow up? Will they be stigmatized?

“It was both difficult and rewarding doing mission work thousands of miles away from home. I often felt distraught at how great the need for medical assistance was. It was way beyond what five Americans were capable of accomplishing in six days. But since being back and processing the whole trip in my mind, it was the greatest, most selfless thing I had ever done and I cannot wait to do it again.”

Other nursing students who helped with the effort in Tanzania included seniors Jillian Troxel of Laurys Station, PA, and Patricia Logan of Whitehall, PA.

Heelan said the average annual income in Tanzania is less than $150. Despite this, the country is largely agrarian and everyone gets fed enough to eat.  At the root of the healthcare dilemma in rural villages, such as Bukoba, is the fact that most doctors tend to concentrate around the larger cities where there are better facilities and where they can earn better wages.

One of the doctors who remain in Bukoba is Ndologe Hospital Medical Director Onesmo Rwakyendela, a gifted physician who has been doing his job for many years without adequate equipment. Rwakyendela stays in his hometown despite the fact that his wife has breast cancer. At one point, his wife had to temporarily leave the village to receive treatment on the other side of the country. She’s one of the lucky ones. Most women can’t afford to leave the village to receive the necessary treatment, so they end up dying. Dr. Rwakyendela struggles making ends meet while sending four of his five children to a pricey, English-speaking boarding school.

Heelan has forged a friendship with Rwakyendela and other medical/nursing team members over the last few years. She visited Ndologe hospital in 2005 and 2007 to develop relationships and do community health assessments. To be able to bring Rwakyendela and the people he serves a host of supplies and help with the community’s healthcare needs this year brought her great joy.

“To bring him the colposcope and all the supplies he has been wanting for years, it was like Christmas,” she said, noting that most of the funding for the supplies came from collections and fundraisers at her church, Saint John’s Lutheran Church in Scott’s Run, as well as Cedar Crest College.

Heelan said she is already eying a return visit to the country next year, one which already has attracted great interest among students, including some of those who just returned. The journey isn’t easy by any standards—this year’s trip included an 18-hour flight to Tanzania followed by a 6-hour minivan ride to Bukoba. And the accommodations are modest—two people to a room and three relatively healthy and bland meals per day.

But the experience is priceless.

“I really feel like they are family. It’s really about listening to them, of finding out what the concerns are and how we can help them,” said Heelan. “We are making a difference by helping the hands that are already doing the healing.”




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