This is the story of Elijah Obama written by BKU alumni intern Simone Vecchio during her time at Bright Kids during the summer of 2012.
Elijah Obama came to Bright Kids Uganda in 2011 at the age of two as a very sick little boy. His mother is an alcoholic who contracted tuberculosis while she was pregnant with Obama and was nursing him while she was ill. His father, a man from Western Kenya is also an alcoholic living with HIV/AIDS. When Obama first arrived at Bright Kids, he was unable to walk and his belly was so swollen that he was in constant discomfort. Because Obama was ill from the time he was born, he was much smaller than the other babies his age. Victoria quickly began a regimen of deworming and a feeding program to decrease his swollen belly. However, Obama still remained in poor health and was very withdrawn, rarely smiling or playing with the other children. He wanted to be held all the time, not that visiting interns ever minded cuddling with an adorable two-year old. In addition to cold-like symptoms, Obama was constantly burning up and sweating and he had an indescribable odor, even after he was bathed. He also had strange lumps on each side of his neck that were so big, you could actually see them bulging. Over the course of the next year, Obama was taken to several doctors who always seemed to give the same diagnosis; he had pneumonia and suffered from malnutrition. They consistently failed to diagnose him or follow up with his condition. This was puzzling and disheartening to Victoria since she always fed Obama the same as the other children, if not more. Despite his regular feedings, Obama was not putting on weight or getting any bigger.
This past summer, myself and another intern from the University of Pittsburgh, Maria Cruz, became quite attached to little Obama and we were determined to get him properly diagnosed. We took him to Shores Clinic, just a short walk from the BKU compound where we were informed they would test Obama for TB. The clinic took blood, which was a horrible experience for Obama. The look of fear on his face was enough to make me cry. Needless to say, after the poking and prodding Obama was put through, the clinic mismanaged the sample and never even tested for TB. It wasn’t until days later when we called for an update that they told us the sample was no good.
A few weeks later, rather unexpectedly, we just happened to meet a volunteer doctor from the states, Dr. Katey Buck. Dr. Katey said to bring Obama by and she would have a look. When we did, Dr. Katey was rushing to get on a bus to leave the village for good and we literally held Obama out to Dr. Katey. She looked at him for about 5 minutes and after listening to the “rumbling” in his chest and detecting the odor, she said he was “wasting away.” She emphasized the urgency of getting him treated and referred us to another doctor in Mulago Hospital in Kampala.
In the meantime, Maria and I had decided to venture to Rwanda for a long weekend. While at the Genocide Memorial Center, Maria and I met some medical students from the United States. Kathryn Andrews, Ben Campbell, and Rashmi Jasrasaria were interning at Mulago Hospital in Kampala. We exchanged information and they told us to contact them when we got back to Uganda to bring Obama to the hospital.
After we came back from Rwanda, another intern took Obama to another hospital where they did more tests, but still no TB test. After a chest x-ray and more blood work, they confirmed that he had pneumonia. Obama was diagnosed earlier in the year with pneumonia, but had never received proper treatment for the condition. That hospital also referred us to Mulago for further testing. Maria and I took Obama into the city of Kampala to Mulago Hospital, where we met up with the interns who helped us navigate around the hospital and see the right people. They finally performed the TB test. The doctor also referred us to a nutritionist and said that Obama needed a full battery of blood work to check for other conditions. I distinctly remember the doctor saying that the hospital could do the blood work, but he admitted that the testing was not very good so the results may not be reliable and it would take a very long time. He referred us to a medical lab for the blood work. He told us it would be expensive, but I didn’t want to take the chance of bad blood work again or delaying his diagnosis any further. Obama had already been through enough testing and we couldn’t waste any more time getting him healthy.
So we went to the lab where they took blood and a sample of the fluid in his neck where his lymph nodes were swollen. It is very difficult to get blood from Obama’s arms, since they are so tiny. After several attempts they had to take it out of his femoral artery. He was screaming and crying “mama” and Maria had to hold him down while they did the procedure. The lab called the next day to say that one of his samples was not good because the blood had clotted too quickly. So, we took him back 2 days later when we were due to go back to the hospital for the TB results. Fortunately, they were able to draw blood from his arm this time but, not after several attempts. Meanwhile, his other arm was swollen from the TB test, a final confirmation of what we had suspected. I think Maria and I just felt relief. The testing had finally come to an end and we knew Obama was going to be okay. We got him the TB medication, in addition to several others recommended for the pneumonia, fever, and nutritional supplements…4 in all.
Within 2 weeks of taking the medication, there was a noticeable difference in Obama. Many of his symptoms began to disappear. His breathing was better, he no longer felt like he was burning up, nor was he sweating constantly, and the odor had disappeared. Obama is still very small but he should continue to grow now that his body is able to absorb the nutrients from food. His demeanor had changed completely. He no longer looks sad or stares off into space and he is interacting with the other children. One of the biggest changes I noticed is that Obama was smiling a lot more. Victoria reports that Obama now follows Richard around every morning helping to feed the chickens. Probably, the best day I spent at BKU this summer was on August 8th celebrating Obama’s 3rd birthday and it was truly a reason to celebrate. I was so thankful that Maria and I were finally able to get Obama diagnosed so that he can begin to get healthy and have a bright future.
The experience was really eye opening for me in terms of seeing the failure of the healthcare system in Uganda. For a year this child was put through countless testing without any results or follow-up care for an easily treatable disease that he could have very well died from. While I am not a parent myself, I am able to better understand the experience and feeling of helplessness that many parents in Uganda must feel as they try to seek medical attention for their children. Obama’s experience is a perfect example illustrating why the new medical clinic at BKU is critical to keeping our children healthy and cared for. I am convinced that Maria and I had many angels working with us, like Dr. Katey and the medical interns and that, each time we happened to run into those angels, we were exactly where we were meant to be.