Weill Cornell students discover reality of poverty in Tanzania


By Marium Saeed


WCMCQ students trip to Tanzania
Photo provided by Ahmed Saleh


None of her university education and training could have prepared Lama Obeid, a second year medical student at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, for some of the medical cases she witnessed while working in the Intensive Care Unit at Bugando Medical Centre in poverty-stricken Tanzania.


“You’re told what it means to be a doctor in Tanzania, you’re sort of prepared for it— but it’s nothing like when you actually see it,” she said.
Obeid, along with Ahmed Saleh, also a second year medical student at WCMC-Q, were selected to visit Tanzania this summer as part of an eight-week-long annual trip to Mwanza, Tanzania.


Since 2011, two students from Qatar’s campus have been selected to participate in this trip, which aims “to provide students an insight into healthcare provision in a low-income resource setting,” according to a statement by Dr. Sohaila Cheema, the director of the Department of Global and Public Health and the coordinator of the program.


Tanzania has one physician per 50,000 patients, the lowest ratio in the world, according to Weill Cornell’s website. “Its kind of incomprehensible until you’re there and you literally can’t keep up with the number of patients,” said Obeid, referring to the statistics.


Saleh added that the severe lack of physicians, especially in villages, allowed him to get hands-on experience.


“They want to use every single person in the team so they got me to help them out with the smallest things,” he said.


For Obeid and Saleh, who are both interested in working in resource-poor countries, the experience helped them realize how much harder it is to apply medical examinations without the proper resources. Saleh recollects working in a situation where “You’re thinking of a specific test but you can’t really order [it] (due to limited supplies)…so you have to make your diagnosis based on what you’re seeing without having the proof that this is the definite case.”


Tanzania is plagued with tropical and infectious diseases that have been eradicated from the first world but persist in Tanzania today because of a lack of medical equipment and medication, said Saleh.


For Obeid, the problem didn’t lie solely in the lack of resources, but also in the public’s view of hospitals. Patients prefer to first see traditional healers who are more accessible, less expensive and less intimidating than hospitals, said Obeid.


“What you’re seeing [at hospitals] is the worst of the worst. People end up dying in the hospital because they’re at such a late stage, so everyone associates going to hospital with dying,” she said. “It’s a vicious cycle.”


Some patients who do survive the odds, like a man in his twenties suffering from tetanus, left a mark on both Saleh and Obeid. Obeid recalled “seeing him through the worst phases of his treatment up until he was well enough to walk around and speak. He flirted with me at some point and that was really funny. But I’m like, ‘It’s good you’re alive.’”


Despite the difficulties of practicing medicine in such a poor country, both students learned valuable lessons.


Obeid explained that the language barriers between her and patients made her realize the importance of body language.


“I couldn’t tell [patients] can you please raise your arm or can you please take off your jacket. Imagine someone coming up to you, not saying a word and then starting to take your jacket off or touching your arm, it’s very off-putting and scary when you’re sick and you’re vulnerable. It really taught me to value my patient’s space and I would say I will never forget that.”


Another thing that resonated with Saleh was the gratitude he felt from patients despite this language barrier.
“Whenever I go there and interact with the patients they really appreciate the fact that you’re here,” said Saleh. “They see a random person from a different country that’s here just to help them and they really appreciate that.”


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