The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

August 7, 2010

Local woman helps deliver maternity care

Johnstown physician assistant receives medical culture shock in African villages

— A constant around the world is that women have babies – whether in the U.S. or Liberia.

But in Liberia, only 51 percent of all births are attended by skilled health-care providers, reports the World Health Organization.

Last month, I walked into this scenario along with four other fifth-year Duquesne University physician assistant students and a faculty adviser.

When we arrived after about a day and a half of traveling, the other students and I began working at ELWA Hospital, which is in desperate need. I do not think anyone would truly understand what I mean unless they actually witnessed it firsthand.

There is a lack of supplies, room, organization and staff motivation – which is no wonder seeing the conditions they are dealing with. The hospital probably has about 100 beds and three doctors.

After working there for a few days, Mike Lynn (one of the other team members) and I were picked up by Steve Trexler, an American missionary and physician assistant, and driven to his clinic in a village called Gbargna.

A moment I will never forget was a church service we had along the way in a village called Cooper's Farm.

Steve started the church three years ago and has been helping it grow ever since. The congregation and I sat in chairs and on a bench in someone's mud and bamboo home and listened to the villagers sing and the pastor preach. He spoke in the tribal language of KPele (with a silent K) and Steve then preached while the pastor translated.

After working in the hospital and seeing where some of the Liberians live, it was such an inspiration to me to see how happy the people were and the immense faith they have in God. It really exemplified to me how we tend to focus on material things and money, and then wonder why we never seem fulfilled.

At Steve's clinic, the African Fundamental Baptist Missions, the students and I treated many people for diseases that one would be unlikely to see in a lifetime in the U.S., such as malaria and typhoid fever.

The following day, several workers and I rode for about another hour into a village called Tolomanai to set up and run a mobile clinic. The people swarmed us and were very curious but welcoming. They tried to teach us some KPele and our attempts made them burst into laughter. It was great to laugh and bond with the villagers.

We treated about 70 children and 200 adults. I worked out of a “kitchen,” which is a thatched roof, open-walled hut where the villagers cook and eat. It was a challenge taking a patient history using the KPele translator, but it was unforgettable interacting with such strong and happy people.

On our last day, we gathered up the donations that we were able to bring with us and took them to the various departments: Gowns, gloves and medications to the pharmacy, and children’s clothes and toys to the OB and pediatrics wards.

Some of us also left our blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes. While we were there, the hospital had two blood pressure cuffs that I saw, one in the emergency department and one – which was broken – for the wards. There was only one thermometer. The staff was extremely creative in coming up with ways to treat patients by using the materials they had available.

This trip also taught me the importance of compassion in health care. Even though we could not treat many people medically, it meant so much to them that we took a little time to talk or hold their hand.

My heart goes out to the people at the hospital and ELWA, and I made the decision while I was there that someday I will go back.

While in Liberia, our group also visited an orphanage twice to play with the children and donate toys. This experience was also amazing, and the kids and staff were so happy to see us. I was actually sore from doing all the lifting and piggyback riding, but it was well worth it.

It was comforting to see them receiving some education. We took sidewalk chalk and most could write their names and read a little. There is a law in place that they cannot be adopted unless they have a life-threatening medical condition, so many of them may live out their childhood in the orphanage.

Many of the children kept asking to go with us, and this was heartbreaking, but seeing the joy on their faces made me feel that we did provide some fun.

We also toured the government-funded JFK Hospital with Daniel White from Hospitals of Hope. He talked of plans to build a new ELWA hospital. If anyone wishes to contribute or volunteer their time, they can visit the website at

One last place we visited was called Missionaries of Charity, an AIDS hospice operated by sisters in the order founded by Mother Teresa. This place was a shelter for those who had nowhere to go and needed support. They do not provide medical care but do work with the government-funded hospital to try to obtain the people’s medications.

The hospice runs totally on donations and the sisters do not ask for any, but believe that God provides for those in need.

Six sisters run the haven and provide food and clean clothing and sheets for all of the residents daily. One sister took us up to see the children’s floor and greet the tiny, smiling faces.

The only thing a person needs to do to obtain a bed is walk to the front door and ring the bell – no paperwork, no phone calls, no applications. Can you imagine this in our country?

Overall, I would recommend this experience to anyone as it really is an eye-opener and it allowed me to see my culture from a different perspective.

It helped me to grow as a clinician and a person.

It is my goal to never forget this experience and the life lessons imparted to my classmates and me.

Laura Berkebile of Johnstown graduated Friday from the five-year physician assistant program at Duquesne University. She and four other graduate students spent two weeks on clinical rotation in the western Africa country of Liberia, working at a nongovernmental hospital and in villages of the bush and jungle. She is the daughter of Dan and Sharon Berkebile and is a 2005 graduate of Richland High School.

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