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From Colville to Africa

September 1, 2011

Dr. Barry Bacon (far right0 talks with residents of Yuka in regards to public health. Bacon recently returned from Western Zambia and will be journeying to Rwanda with his wife, Shelly, after Labor Day. Photo by Shelly Bacon.

On first impression, Dr. Barry Bacon is a quiet, unassuming man. He practices medicine at the Northeast Washington Medical Group Clinic in Colville, has been married to his wife, Shelley, for 30 years and even performs in a local band comprised entirely of doctors (often under the moniker The Doctors’ Concert).
But under this reserved surface is an ambition to help the less fortunate. And for Bacon that means continuing his sojourns to the African continent.
Dr. Bacon recently returned from the small, rural village of Yuka in Western Zambia and is preparing to depart for Ruhengeri, Rwanda on Sept. 5. This will make the ninth journey for Bacon to some of the most beleaguered countries of the continent.
“This is a new adventure,” says Bacon, who will be teaching family medicine and health to caregivers at Ruhengeri’s remote hospital, along with other health practitioners from the United States. “Our goal is to work ourselves out of a job and teach these people what we know until they don’t need our assistance any longer. It’s a relatively temporary intervention.”
The Bacons and their traveling companions will live in Ruhengeri for four months and return to Colville just before Christmas. Dr. Tunuja Edvalson will administer to Bacon’s practice while he is away.

Focusing on community health

A significant portion of the group’s teachings while in Rwanda will focus on public/community health and outpatient medicine. The challenges are many, including a language barrier (the majority of nurses speak French) and limited, rudimentary equipment.
“Lab facilities are limited,” says Bacon. “They have a fetal monitor for babies, but they don’t know how to use it.”
Because of the abject poverty many of these countries face, it is difficult for people to receive up-to-date medical care and for those practicing medicine to receive a comprehensive education.
“Many times, the people running the local clinic or hospital, if there is one, are nurses or midwives that have had only one year of education above high school,” explains Bacon. “And they have to do everything---diagnosis, give injections, deliver babies—and they don’t always have the resources or staff to help them.”
Bacon described an incident at Yuka Hospital in Zambia where two young mothers had gone into abnormal labor and lost their babies. Because of the size of the hospital, they were unable to have their own rooms and had no choice but to be in the same ward with other mothers whose babies had lived.
“Meningitis patients, HIV patients, tuberculosis patients, etc., are all in the same ward, just because there isn’t enough room,” says Bacon. “That’s why infection control is so important.”
Just over 17 years later, Bacon, who has visited Rwanda before, says that the country is still rebuilding after the 1994 genocide that massacred an estimated 800,000 people in just three months. About 50 miles west of Ruhengeri is the Eastern Congo, described by human rights activists and politicians as “the rape capital of the world” and “the worst place to be a woman” because of the high amount of sexual violation that is perpetrated on women by the country’s military and armed militia.

‘I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.’

“You can see the fear in people’s eyes when they talk about this (1994 genocide and the Congo),” says Bacon. “There are still many historical and cultural challenges there that these people are having to face.”
Bacon recalls a moment when he was at the bedside of a young woman who had escaped to Rwanda from the Congo to have her baby. Unfortunately, three days after giving birth to a healthy baby boy, she was dying of liver failure and Bacon and the rest of the doctors were unable to save her.
“We couldn’t figure out what was wrong,” remembers Bacon. “We didn’t have the lab equipment to run the necessary tests. All we could do was be there with her and try to learn as much as we could about her condition. It was then that I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.”
Though American eyes may see the lack of proper equipment and facilities as a detriment to the African healthcare students, Bacon says it is better to teach them in their own environment than to bring them to the states.
“What good would it do to pluck them out of their homes, teach them American medicine, then drop them right back into those hard conditions?” Bacon asks. “It’s better to teach them in their setting with the tools they have.’
Bacon praises the African healthcare practitioners that he and his colleagues have instructed as being, “Smart, respectful and eager to learn.”
“A lot of these people are refugees from the genocide and the Congo who want to do a good job and rebuild their country,” says Bacon. “It’s not only an opportunity for them to learn something, but it’s a great opportunity for us to learn something as well. It’s a wonderful chance to experience this culture and make a difference in the world.”
For those whop would like updates on Dr. Bacon’s experiences in Africa, past and soon-to-be present, he can be contacted at baconbarry@juno.com.

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