Broken bones and faulty machines

Michael, my husband, injured his hand about a month ago, and it was still hurting quite a bit, 4 weeks on. He was concerned that it wasn’t healing, and we wanted to get an x-ray to check that it wasn’t fractured and didn’t need a cast (something we were both dreading!! ).

Of course, there is nowhere to get an x-ray in Kamwenge.

So we begrudgingly piled into the car to set out on our fortnightly trip to Fort Portal, the nearest big town to Kamwenge. Fort Portal is a big town  (maybe 80,000 people? I really have no idea!) about 70 km’s away, and it normally takes about 1 to 1 and a half hours on a windy dirt road, surrounded by beautiful scenery – hills cultivated with maize, millet and matooke banana trees, a section of tropical rainforest with baboons along the way, and then rolling expanses of neatly ordered tea plantations, sprinkled with old houses left over from the colonial era. A beautiful drive.

But now that the wet season has well and truly come, the road is terrible. We crawled along for most of the journey, trying to avoid the gazillion pot holes and deep rivets in the road, all the time shaking our heads at the poor state of the roads. It took us over 2 very bumpy hours to reach Fort Portal for our day trip.

After getting all our other jobs done – recharging the internet modem, going to the bank, printing, getting stuff for MH ticked off the list – we looked around for a place to get an x-ray. First we tried a private clinic in town recommended by someone on the main street. We were told they are a clinic used by one of the main insurance companies in Uganda, and would definitely have an x-ray.

What I found was a small dingy room full of bored patients, with no staff in site. A woman who was waiting pointed towards the next room, where I found what looked like some makeshift outpatient rooms. It was only when I poked my head around the corner into a small store that I found a nurse. When I asked what I needed she was quick to tell me they had no equipment for x-ray here, but told me to try Kabarole Hospital – the Anglican church hospital round the corner.

Arriving at Kabarole, we struggled to find anyone to help us, just crumbling buildings and a freshly painted one labelled ‘private ward’. We approached the dispensary and after getting over his surprise that a white person would be there, the man shook his head as he told us the X-ray machine had been broken for some time. Instead, we should try another private clinic in town.

The next clinic wasn’t much different. Here, they were known for x-rays (it was even written on the sign outside) but unfortunately, the films were over and they didn’t know when they would next come. With a resigned sigh that conveyed almost no confidence, the women told us to try Buhinga.

Buhinga is the main regional referral hospital for this part of western Uganda. It is a government hospital. We have heard many stories of patients coming there to find doctors who will not see them without bribes, a lack of equipment and medications, and overcrowded rooms of very sick patients. Currently, this is where most people in Kamwenge get referred onto.

We were very lucky though. Or perhaps, more accurately, we were white. We found a nurse along the maze of undercover pathways that linked the hospital buildings, and she was friendly and happy to help us. She led us to the x-ray department, where we wove through dozens of patients sitting (or lying down), waiting for their x-ray or ultrasound. The doctor was pleasant and happy to do the x-ray for us immediately (and free), and although Michael’s hand was slightly fractured it was small and almost healed, so there was no need for a cast.

But as we were waiting for the film to develop, there was a little girl in line, needing to have her face x-rayed as she had a severe head injury. It was not possible. They were only stocking the half size x-ray films, which meant there was no way to get a full x-ray of her head. Her father, who looked poor and out of his depth in the situation, listened intensely as they told him he would have to take her somewhere else for an x-ray. I already knew from my experience that day that there were no other places in Fort Portal to get an x-ray and he would not be able to afford the transport to somewhere far.

Michael and I lived in Mannum a few years ago. In the small town of maybe 5000, they had a good x-ray machine. Compare this to Kamwenge, who in the town itself has about 20,000, but services a district of 350,000 people, with no x-ray machine.

It sounds clichéd but again it made me realise how lucky Australian’s are to have the health care system we have. As for me? I am not used to driving 2 hours on a muddy, potholed road just for a simple x-ray. I am not used to driving around to 4 different clinics in one big town just to find a working x-ray machine.

One day I hope and pray that this will be as strange to Ugandans as it is to me.

5 responses to “Broken bones and faulty machines

  1. What an experience!
    Forgive me for being a bit of a dreamer – but what would it cost to buy, send, install and maintain an x-ray machine in your clinic? Or am I being too impractical? Seems like your dear African people could do with one that’s current and in working condition.

    • Uncle Trev!
      Never ask forgiveness for being a dreamer! Actually, we have been discussing this ourselves lately. We are looking to try and get an x-ray machine donated, or raising some funds to purchase one…as we could certainly do with one here. We are sending over another shipping container early next year, and praying that we will find one inside 🙂
      You don’t have an old one lying around somewhere do you? 🙂

      By the way, I visited your birding blog the other day – I had no idea that it was so popular and successful! I can’t imagine ever having so many people reading my words! When did you start blogging?

      • I’ll need to be cleaning out the garage soon – will keep an eye out for a lazy x-ray machine lying around!
        Will pray that you find one in that container.
        I enjoy blogging about the birds I see in our little patch of mallee scrub and in our garden – and whenever we travel anywhere. I started writing on my site almost exactly 6 years ago. I love the interaction with and between my many readers.

  2. This is so sad. I am a nurse in a busy public hospital in Adelaide, and work in the Emergency Department. Some days, we have over 200 people through and believe me, many of them literally have, headaches, bruised big toe..etc etc. The complaining about waiting that goes on, yet these people are waiting for results from the x-ray, the CT Scan, the numerous blood tests etc etc. I just wish people here knew just how lucky they are, they can come to a busy ED, have all these amazing expensive tests for nothing, get drugs, treatments like ivt and anti biotics, or go on to a ward, or emergency surgery, all for no charge. It makes me so sad, and I wish I could put some of these things in my pocket and send them to you….you people are wonderful.

    • Hi Vicky – thanks so much for your encouragement! You sound very passionate about all of this! The health care system we have in Australia IS amazing – I try to explain the system to our Ugandan staff sometimes, but it is so far beyond what they are used to – imagine that if you are in a rural area in Australia the government will PAY for a helicopter to bring you to a big hospital in an emergency. Even getting an ambulance here is difficult! Just to make you feel better though – we also get the headaches and bruised big toes. A few women have even come to the clinic complaining of a ‘dead arm’ they get from sleeping on their arm for too long, and demand medication! lol.

      If you want to find out how you can get involved in MH, you can contact our project manager in Oz:

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