Monday, August 10, 2009

An afterward...

We landed at RDU around 9:30 on Thursday morning. We’d been on planes or in airports for the preceding twenty four hour period, so I was extremely grateful to feel the wheels touch down below us. Julie was waiting for me, as close to the gate as homeland security would allow her. I’ve never been so happy to see her.

After collecting my bags, I said goodbye to my colleagues and headed home. We stopped at the Fresh Market and picked up sandwich components (rare roast beef, slices of luxurious provolone, fresh rolls) and got back to the townhouse. I decided it was close enough to lunch time to eschew Bojangles for later. Don’t worry - that Cajun Filet biscuit knows I’m coming for it sooner rather than later.

After a few days of recovery, I’ve had a little bit of time to reflect on the entire African experience. One of the reasons I wanted to go to Africa above some of the other outreach opportunities at UNC was its maximum exoticness. I didn’t want to just go to another country; I was hoping to see a whole other world. In this respect, I was na├»ve.

People are the same, whether they’re in Africa or America. They want to have the chance to live out their lives, raise their children, and find personal satisfaction. They like to go out, dance, and have a beer. They don’t like to go to the dentist. They don’t brush and floss as much as they should. They eat French fries at an alarming rate. The entire world delights in the culinary perfection which is fried chicken.

The differences are more superficial, and I felt like they were mostly economic. Malawians walk and ride bicycles, since they don’t have cars. They wash clothes in the river because they don’t have running water. They make their own charcoal from the surrounding bush because they can’t get it at the store. All-in-all, I felt like there were few, if any, significant cultural barriers to overcome.

They could certainly use a few dentists, however. The dentists we were with had a relentless schedule that was heavily weighted towards surgery. Dental therapists handled much of the more routine cases of restorative, periodontal, and extraction work. The dentists were relegated to jaw surgery, oncology cases, trauma work, and dealing with medically complex patients. It was eye-opening to see the scope of practice in Malawian dentistry.

I think we were able to help. By having a few extra hands on board, they were able to leave a skeleton crew of therapists and dentists behind at the Central Hospital while reaching out to meet the needs of more rural areas. I wanted to make sure that I was of use in Malawi, not a third wheel preventing the existing crew from doing its work. Our excellent preceptors, Dr. Mlotha in particular, created an environment where we could use our talents to maximum advantage without interfering with the operations of the local team members.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to have been part of the project. I found out a few things about myself in the process. Prior to dental school, my academic history had been a series of decisions where I consistently went against my own interests. Despite a lifelong interest in animals and healthcare, I decided to major in math, never taking a biology class in undergrad. Despite a love for working with people, I decided to pursue a career in computers. Once I decided to become a dentist, it was like slipping into a comfortable pair of slippers. Of course I enjoyed it – it’s the kind of thing I’ve been interested in for my entire life. The Malawi Project reminded me of the importance in seeking out things which are a natural fit.

Specifically, I realized that the times which were the most rewarding to me were those where I worked with children. I’ve worked with kids whenever my life would allow it. I’ve taught high school, worked with the church youth group, and coached little league basketball. I think I realized I should try to continue this trend in dentistry. If I find work with children to be personally rewarding, then I should try to find a dental career where I work with children. Malawi helped convince me that I need to look long and hard at the two most relevant branches of dentistry, pediatric dentistry and orthodontics. I’m not sure if I’ll have the academic chops to end up in either one, but it’s nice to feel like I have a tangible direction in my career path. It’s still way too early to say for certain (particularly without board scores in hand), but I’m moving forward with the intention of learning as much as possible about these two specialties.

I think I’ll end the 2009 Malawi Project blog on that note. I’d like to thank all of the readers who were willing to put up with numerous superfluous commas and incomplete sentences. Thanks to our preceptors both at home and in Malawi that helped to make the trip such a success. I’m looking forward to choosing next year’s team. I can only hope that they find the experience as rewarding as I have.

I’ve enjoyed the blogging experience, and I may add to this in the unforeseeable future. If I happen to come upon any strokes of genius, I’ll be sure to let you know. Don’t hold your breath, though, since I’ve never had any before.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Days 14-17, I'll have the kudu pot pie

I’ve decided to lump the safari together into one entry for the sake of clarity. We spent a few days traveling through Kruger National Park, sometimes in the minibus, sometimes in an open-air four wheel drive, and sometimes on foot. At one of the numerous lunch stops in the park, I was able to enjoy a pot pie filled with delicious kudu. I doubt I’ll get the chance to taste it again.

At various points, I had the opportunity to see the following animals in their natural habitats:


Common Duiker





Blue Wildebeest



Vervet Monkey


Ground Hornbill

Martial Eagle


Cape Buffalo

Nile Crocodile

Sideneck Turtle



African Wild Dog

White Rhinoceros


Large Spotted Ginnet

White Tailed Mongoose


Multiple unidentified geckos and other lizards

Our early morning walking tour got me within a stones throw of a mother white rhinoceros and her calf. On multiple occasions, we could have reached out and touched elephants. In short, the entire process was a memorable and moving experience.

I’ll include one more entry on this blog after I get home with reflections and thoughts. Then, it’s back to dental school, prepping for board exams, and trying to make up for being an absent husband for the past three weeks.

Thanks to all who looked after my wife while I was gone. We are truly blessed to have such excellent friends and family.

Day 13, En route to Kruger

We awoke at 6:15 to the sound of cold rain falling from a gunmetal sky. After the arid conditions of Malawi, it took a few minutes to identify the sounds as raindrops. I poked my head out of our door to see guinea fowl chirping and scratching in the field outside the door, as well as a few small antelope being farmed on the premises. We met our guide, a native South African man named Dawn, at 7:15. A quick breakfast at the game lodge was followed by a condensation of our luggage into smaller units that would fit into our minibus.

We discovered that we had been at the least misled regarding the nature of our safari.

The safari we’d paid for included a scenic ride to the Blythe River Canyon (and the associated areas) en route to Kruger National Park. We were under the impression we’d then go into the heart of the park in open-air four-wheel drive vehicles. Upon Dawn’s arrival, he explained that the tour only included his driving us through the park on the park’s paved roads, and that excursions (walking, four-wheel drive, or night drives) would be available for additional fees. Despite our initial expense, we decided that it was worth the extra for the optional tours. We’ll aggressively pursue some sort of recompense for our travel agents upon our return.

The drive to Kruger takes nearly eleven hours. It was mostly across rolling plains, heading due eastward from Johannesburg. The area produces the majority of the coal (and coal-based power) in southern Africa, so most of the time at least one collection of smokestacks was visible. Periodically, springbok could be seen grazing in the unfenced grasslands.

Here’s the list of animals I saw today:


Secretary Birds


Vervet Monkey Troupe

Baboon Troupe

Scorpion (not further identified)

Enough of my yappin. Here’s a tiny sample of the pictures I took. I saw more beautiful things today than I’ve seen in my life.

Day 12, Leaving Las Lilongwe

Our last day in Lilongwe was a bit more hurried than expected. We spent the morning making our final arrangements: delivering any leftover supplies to the storeroom of KCH’s dental clinic, paying for our meals and lodging at the guest house, and gathering our belongings for our trip to Johannesburg. Joyce spent most of the morning with us, and our preceptors and faculty from the preceding weeks popped in to wish us safe travel. The Malawians are a model of friendly people. They were uniformly warm and giving, and our enjoyment of the trip was largely due to their uncompromising sense of hospitality.

The bus picked us up at noon, and we needed to make one more run through the curio market on the way out of town. A few items we’d had personalized were being completed, and we couldn’t leave without them. Lilongwe traffic did its best to make us miss our plane, but our driver prevailed.

The Kamuzu International Airport is different than any other airport I’ve visited. Each carry-on bag is hand searched, and each traveler is subject to patting down. Thankfully, none of us attempted to smuggle out any suspicious cargo. The plane ride itself was delightfully uneventful. I had a chance to finish my second book, A Clockwork Orange. I’ve never seen Kubricks’ film version and came into the read with limited knowledge. I found the book compelling, particularly the last chapter (which, according to the author, Kubrick left out of his film). I won’t spoil it, but it certainly provides a very different finish than it would if it were omitted.

We arrived in Johannesburg around 5:30 PM and quickly passed through “customs” (read as “a long hallway”). The Airport Game Lodge, where we spent tonight and where we’ll stay after the safari, has a free airport shuttle. It’s a bit secluded, so we had to have dinner delivered. We ended up eating dinner at 9:30. Better than Malawi, but still grossly unhealthy fast food. We were told to avoid salads at the start of our travel, and I am starving for one of Pepper’s salads, piled high with some fresh mozz.

For the first time since our travel began, we all stayed in. Without the clubbing to keep us up, we clambered into bed. Our safari ride would begin around 7:15 the next morning. No pictures today – my camera didn’t get much work as I shuffled around.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Day 11, My name is Edward Chimpupo

Today was our last day “on the clock” in Malawi. As usual, we filled up the minibus and high-tailed it out of town early. Our destination was the Salima HIV/AIDS support group, where we were going to run a free clinic for children and their caregivers. Salima is a popular setting off point for Lake Malawi adventures, so we hoped to have a bit of time to explore Africa’s third largest lake.

A few of our group (yours truly included) decided today would be an excellent time to start having stomach trouble. The road was thankfully paved, and thus was as non-bumpy as possible in Malawi. We arrived at high noon, and we were told that they had expected us early. When we hadn’t arrived, they told everyone to come back at 1:30. Hence, if we were going to see Lake Malawi, we were going to have to make quick work of the dental problems we encountered.

When the appointed time came, we leapt into action. Our only hang-up was that the majority of the kids needed ART (no-drill fillings), which are comparatively time-intensive. After we finished the few extractions we needed to perform, most of the group went to the ART room. Due to limited space and physical resources, the rest of us were left to wander around. I was finally able to get some good pictures of the environment we were working in. After I get home, I’ll include the link to the full set of pictures, but an awful connection in Malawi prevents showing all of them.

During this period, a boy walked over to me. I pointed to my chest and said “Kevin.” He stood tall, lifted his chin slightly, and said in perfect British-derived English “My name is Edward Chimpupo.” I pantomimed taking his picture, and he immediately assumed this pose.

We finished with enough time to head over to the lake for a few minutes of exploration. The lake is functionally an inland sea. It’s one of the most biologically rich lakes in the world, with over five hundred species of stunning tropical fish. Fishermen straddling dugout canoes came shoreward, displaying hulls full of wriggling cichlids. The lake itself is stunning. Enormous boulders thrust up from the coastline, which is lined with baobab trees and a sandy beach.

I was photographing Anina when she pointed behind me and said, “Are those cats?” I immediately responded “MONKEYS!” After consulting a source or two, I think they were a troupe of vervet monkeys. They wouldn’t let us approach. I was jealous of Charles, who got a picture of what I’m pretty sure was a hyrax. Like Steve Earle, I ain’t ever satisfied.

We finally arrived home around 8:30, making it a near twelve hour day. The kids were helped, the monkeys were seen, and the lake thoroughly documented with pictures. Tomorrow, we leave Lilongwe to fly back to Johannesburg, and we’ll begin a safari through Kruger National Park the day after. I’m not sure of my access to the ‘net while on Safari, but I’ll bring the laptop and keep writing. I’ll update the site as soon as I’m able.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Day 10, Children of ash and dust

We met at the dental clinic at 8 AM to take the bus to the Dzleka Refugee Camp. The bus ride to the camp gives me a chance to mention how road construction works in Malawi.

Any road under construction has a “diversion” dirt road running alongside of it. This dirt road often switches, apparently at random, which side of the inactive road it is on. This forces the driver to slalom back and forth over the main road, spending time battling through clouds of red dust from preceding motorists, ox-carts, and herds of goats. It makes for an interesting ride.

While we were making our way to the camp, I imagined we’d pass through a barbed wire fence with needy faces peering at us with hollow eyes. Instead, we arrived at a small health center about an hour from Lilongwe. The four rooms were like American walk-in closets, and there was a waiting room with three walls. The clinic was originally intended for children, but once the word was out, anyone and everyone showed up. Evidently, the camp was just over the hill and housed many people.

I asked our preceptors what nationalities were represented at the camp. Among those countries mentioned were Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda, Botswana, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Language had been a barrier for our whole trip. In this instance, with all of the languages in a given African country, it almost proved insurmountable. I was reduced to a very rudimentary pantomime.

My first rotation was in ART (atraumatic restorative therapy). Due to a lack of facilities and space, I straddled the end of a bench. A Rwandan woman laid down on the bench with her head in my lap, and I began scraping out the decayed parts of her upper right first molar. After cleaning the cavity the best I could, I filled the hole with a glass ionomer filling material.

I then switched over to diagnosis. When I opened the door from the ART closet, I found the entire hallway literally clogged with refugees waiting in line. I bodysurfed/forced through the crowd, which was not the first time on this trip I found myself lamenting my enormous gut. Once through and into the waiting area, I saw the extensive collection of people waiting to get treatment.

After collecting names, tooth counts, and disease states, I transferred to scaling. Dedicated readers will be familiar with my stories of calculus, but again the bar was raised. When I walked in to relieve Anina, she smiled both gratefully and sarcastically while handing me a scaler. “Good luck – I’ve done the facial side of the anterior sextant.” When I sat down and got to work, I saw what she meant. An hour into my continued scaling of the patient, I had to call over the preceptor. I thought I’d broken a decayed tooth in half with the instrument. He assured me that I had simply knocked free a calculus deposit so large that it appeared to be an additional cusp. After it was removed, the gum was over a millimeter away from the tooth – the calculus had pushed it so far away. Needless to say, there was ferocious bleeding. He took it well, though, and said “God bless you, sir.”

I spent the rest of the day scaling. It was grueling, bloody work.

The ride home was again along the red-dust-diversion-laced roads. Malawians seem to set lots of fires, so the air is always flavored with the sweet tang of woodsmoke. The sun was setting, and occasionally, it would strike perfect silhouettes of the folk we passed between the road dust and the smoke. A cyclist hauling a load of sugarcane was enshrined in amber light as we crested a hill. Some boys playing soccer were perfectly framed in red and black as the setting sun set the colors of the dust on fire. If Malawians could market their sunsets, they’d be able to afford more dentists.

When we got home, I found that our housemates had purchased a pair of goats to celebrate the end of our collective time in Malawi tomorrow. I’m hoping I won’t be around when they’re prepared. It’s like stepping up to grad school in terms of the animal slaughter, and I’m content with my BA in chicken chopping. Hopefully the goats won’t eat my laundry before we eat them tomorrow.

Our last working day in Malawi is tomorrow. We’re going to see an HIV/AIDS support group in Salima, a town next to Lake Malawi. With any luck, we’re going to stop by the beach before coming back to Lilongwe.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Day 9, Happy sick kids, sad well Kev

We started by heading over to Baylor University’s pediatric HIV/AIDS clinic. The Baylor clinic looks particularly out of place compared to the other buildings on the Kamuzu Central Hospital campus. It’s new and clean, and it looks as if someone picked it up in suburban America, gently carried it over the ocean, and set it down next to the hospital.

The doors open at 8 AM, and we were told to arrive at 8:30. The waiting room was PACKED with children and their parents. Most of the children were frolicking like children do, not demonstrating any effects of the sleeping infections they carried.

The room where we were supposed to meet our preceptor for the day was in use, so we waited in the administrative waiting area. A coffee table book entitled “The Art of Texas Children’s Hospital” caught my eye. I found myself tearing up as I flipped through the pages.

When I was five years old, we moved to Houston. Shortly thereafter, I woke one morning unable to move my neck. My mother is a nurse, and she became alarmed. I went to the doctor, and I soon found myself admitted into Texas Children’s Hospital. I had an infection - that much was clear. Beyond that, the doctors were fairly stumped. For two weeks I was an inpatient of steadily declining status. Despite my current girth, I was a skinny kid to begin with, but I quickly began losing weight. I was subjected to a battery of tests, including a spinal tap, and my infection continued to grow. Two weeks into the process, a young doctor noticed that I cried when he touched one of my teeth. The tooth was pulled, and I recovered completely.

The book included a photograph of a mother lying in a hospital bed with her child. It hit home that my parents must have felt completely helpless as they watched their youngest son begin to waste away. My mother stayed with me all the time, and my father would come and spend the evenings with me after getting off work. Occasionally, he’d smuggle in a little Kentucky Fried Chicken to my delight. During the entire process, I never saw my parents upset. I can’t imagine the burden they were carrying, and the strength they showed by never letting me see them strain under the weight.

I put the book down, and I looked down over the balcony. Below were dozens of parents of children afflicted with a horrible virus, and the children who for the most part waddled around completely oblivious to their status. I felt a certain kindred spirit with all of them. I knew there was no tooth we could pull to let them go home and get on with their previous lives.

Our preceptor arrived, and brought us into the board room for a brief review of the oral manifestations of HIV/AIDS. We’d all taken oral pathology, but the review was a useful primer. Most of the conditions mentioned are seen comparatively rarely in the US due to widespread and consistent use of anti-retroviral drug cocktails. In Africa, some of these complications are more commonplace. After he did a quick check with the unit’s pediatricians, we headed over to the wards in the hospital to meet two patients.

The first child was a two-year old boy afflicted with noma. Noma is a horrid, disfiguring condition associated with a particular combination of HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, and other factors. If you’d like to see it, I’ll let you google it with the warning that it is truly horrible. Our patient had already had surgery, so we were seeing it after some improvements had been made. In noma, an infection can bore holes in the patients face, sometimes eating away flesh to leave gaping wounds. Our patient had a hole just below his chin opening into his mouth. The surgeons had removed all the infected tissue and placed him on antibiotics to remove the bacteria responsible. The child, once he realized we weren’t going to hurt him, didn’t even cry when we surrounded his bed to take a close look. He’s expected to recover from the noma, but he’ll still need to battle HIV/AIDS for the rest of his life.

Our second patient was a one-year old with Kaposi’s sarcoma. Kaposi’s sarcoma are purplish tumors associated with later stage HIV/AIDS infections. They can be found on the skin, in organs, or in the mouth. Our patient had one on the side of the cheek, with a white spot where he’d been chewing on it. Again, this is a child who cannot be cured from his infection by any magic that science possesses.

After the morning, we decided that we needed a break from the hospital for lunch, so we drove out to a nice restaurant. We took our time (as everyone does in Malawi) and savored the break from the rigors of our day’s experiences.

When we returned, we went to the hospital dental clinic, but found that there were no patients for the afternoon. The dentists were scheduled to be in the operating theater all day, and the dental therapy students were taking exams. We returned to the guest house.

Jiayin’s room occupied by a newcomer, a nursing student named Amber. Following the lead of those who were at the guest house when we arrived, I took her on a brief tour of the campus while my teammates took yet another trip to the curio market. Amber is UNC’s first nursing student to come to Malawi, and she was very friendly.

After the tour, I went with Trevor (med student) and John (surgeon) to the ABC Christian Center gymnasium to demonstrate my legendary basketball skills. We found a ragtag collection of professors and pastors engaged in a shootout, and we joined them for a game of 4-on-4. I shot 0 for 175 in the first game, and 1 for 5345 in the second. Just my presence in the room lowered the shooting percentages of the poor fools who were doomed to be playing alongside me. To those who were ruined, I am sorry, but I was totally open.

We got home just in time for Joyce’s delicious spicy chicken stew. After a few games of Tonk with Amber and the others, I went to look for Julie online. Luckily, I was able to find her.

A few extra pics are here. There are the white-breasted crows that correspond to the traditional all-black American models, a tiny gecko living in Trevor’s room, and some incredible Malawi sunsets.