Dr. Jeffrey Joseph Shares Tales from Africa

December 15, 2011

“I live Africa every day,” says Dr. Jeffrey Joseph, Emergency Department physician. It’s been five months since he and his 18-year-old daughter Devin returned from a two-week mission trip to Africa, but the people he met – some of whom he was able to help -- are always on his mind.

Dr. Joseph, who lives in Haymarket, started a journal to record the details of the trip, but when he talks about the experience, he doesn’t need to refer to its pages. The words come unbidden and it’s clear this was a life-changing experience. He has lots of pictures to share and a story goes with each one. Dr. Joseph particularly enjoys talking about one little boy he encountered after a full day of delivering medical care in the streets of an African slum. “I sat down on a stoop. This little boy just walked over and sat down next to me and put his arm on my leg. We didn’t speak. He was happy to sit there with me, and I was happy to have him there. I have since found out that he is 3 years old and his name is Kevin. It was a rare moment.”

The mission team took suitcases full of 300 pounds of supplies – supplied by Fauquier Health’s Materials Management Department and through Dr. Kenneth Kornetsky who works with Medical Missionaries – and provided first aid care in the streets. “It was simple things we were doing, but you would have thought we were handing them gold instead of an analgesic and a bandage.”

The group treated hundreds of residents, many of them children. “It was very emotional. After a day of it, we would all feel pretty wrung out. One morning, the pastor we were staying with, Pastor Jack Mila, thought we needed a break, so he took us to visit President (Barack) Obama’s grandmother. She runs an orphanage of 100 children. We sat in chairs in a semi-circle under a mango tree and chatted with Grandma Obama. We were allowed to take all the pictures we wanted and ask questions. President Obama was scheduled to visit there the next month, but she said she was just as excited to see us, because we were her children, too.”

Visits to local hospitals to evaluate patients were heartbreaking. Dr. Joseph saw much suffering for want of simple medical supplies and treatments that patients in the U.S. would take for granted. He remembers seeing four children at one facility who needed chest X-rays, and a 32-year-old woman who died while waiting days for laboratory results.

He also spent some time at a high school talking to teenage boys about their health concerns. “Every one of them wanted to talk about sex and AIDS. I told them they could ask any questions they wanted, but they just wanted to know about AIDS. ‘If my girlfriend has AIDS, can she still marry?’ ‘If someone has AIDS in their blood, can they replace the blood and get rid of the AIDS?’

“AIDS has destroyed their country. It is a country of little kids and grandparents. The parents are all gone. About 20 percent of children in this area are ‘living positive.’ ” In 2008, about 200,000 children under the age of 5 died from AIDS-related causes and nearly all lived in sub-Saharan Africa.

Although “Pastor Jack” was a gracious host and the mission team was treated well, living conditions for the group were stark. Dr. Joseph said, “we stayed in bunk beds. We had one toilet, one bathroom with cold water. We would take basins of cold water and dump them over our heads for a shower. The water was not safe to drink, so we boiled it or drank fresh water from plastic jugs we bought at the store. Safety is a major concern. Anybody that has anything at all has a wall around their house, a gate with spikes and barbed wire to keep intruders out.”

Dr. Joseph was amazed that people living in such squalid and dangerous conditions were so warm, welcoming and friendly. “There was no sanitation at all, and there was garbage everywhere, but the people wore beautiful clothes and were so friendly and grateful for any help we could give. The kids at the school all wore uniforms. They were respectful and kind and applauded us politely.”

Dr. Joseph’s relationship with Africa did not end when his plane touched back down in the U.S. in August. He and another member of his group began a fund to buy a diesel water pump for the Salem Orphanage Farm in Kenya. He explained, “this orphanage was on a lake, but they didn’t have a way to get the water to the farm. They needed a water pump.” On October 19, Dr. Joseph announced they had raised more than the $5,000 needed to buy the pump. Even after the goal was achieved, the money kept coming in. The extra $2,000 raised will go to three orphanages and will provide 8,000 meals for children.

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