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Working in Tanzania: Save the Coin!

Working with FAME’s Tanzanian (medical) staff was very enriching. In this second part of a small series: the power of humor - and the importance of knowing how to improvise.


The number one risk for tourists in Tanzania is not some tropical infection, but something as banal as a road accident. And getting into a road accident is by no means restricted to tourists. The road accident rate is terribly high among locals as well, and thus it is no wonder that during my relatively short stay I saw some severe cases being rushed into the hospital.

The CT-scanner and the x-ray machine proved their value time after time. It was great to see how the partnership between volunteers and the FAME staff really worked in this field. Even after leaving Tanzania, the radiology volunteers are contacted on a regular basis by the local staff to give their expert opinion on cases. One of the pillars of FAME is education and continuous learning, and it really works in these types of volunteering partnerships that cross the borders of physical presence by using digital platforms.

I remember one night when, while hanging out in town with some of the local staff, the radiology team got a call to come to the hospital to do an x-ray of a boy who had swallowed a coin. In no time, we got on a jeep and off we went on the dark, dusty and bumpy road to FAME. In medical practice, there is that typical mixture of compassion and pity with the patient and being thrilled about sorting out medical complications. Our nightly trip to the hospital was filled with laughter. Humor is a key quality in medical practice and the FAME staff has it in abundance.

In a good vibe, we arrived at the radiology department, where we found a boy about nine years old with an anxious expression on his face. We immediately made an x-ray. It was funny, because I checked every inch of the scan to find the coin. I was expecting it to already be in the boy’s stomach or intestines, when the radiologist directed this blondie’s attention to the obvious: a nice white round object, blocked in the esophagus. The unfortunate boy was brought to the theatre to be “robbed” of his coin.

One of the doctors later reported how he went about with it. Since there was no instrument capable of reaching the coin right away, he studied the x-ray for the angle in which the coin was stuck in the esophagus and got a Foley catheter to a point under the coin. Then the balloon could be filled and the coin could be lifted out by pulling out the catheter. Practicing in a resource poor setting with limited instruments is exciting for Western schooled medical workers because you can learn a lot from the all-round and ingenious ways local medical staff goes about tackling the wide variety of challenges they are faced with on a daily basis. The next day, during the doctors’ round, we found the boy sitting up in bed with a cheered-up face. Thanks to the adequate response of FAME staff, we could laugh along with him about how this coin had made him famous. Some boys start with saving coins, but might one day be saving lives.

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Want to know more about my journey to Tanzania and the Foundation for African Medicine? Check my travel diary.

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