Lethbridge doctor takes medical skills to Togo (March 2, 2013)

Written by Caroline Zentner

Published by The Lethbridge Herald on Saturday, March 2, 2013

The last thing Dr. Magda Lisztwan did before she left Togo in early February was take in a big breath of the sweet, spicy air.

She'd been in Togo for four weeks by that point on a trip arranged by World Medical Missions (WMM), an arm of Samaritan's Purse Canada.

"I've always been interested in using my medical skills overseas and helping where there is need," she said. "What inspired me to join specifically Samaritan's Purse World Medical Mission was because I'm a Christian and their mandate is both for physical healing but also emotional and spiritual wholeness. I wanted to participate in that."

Lisztwan is an emergency doctor in Lethbridge and the short-term placements offered through WMM at hospitals all over the world suited her schedule.

Togo is home to more than six million people living in a small strip of a country on the coast of West Africa. The average per capita income is about $600 a year with agriculture as the largest industry. French is the official language and about a third of people are Christian, 20 per cent are Muslim and half have indigenous beliefs, primarily voodoo.

Lisztwan was stationed at Karolyn Kempton Memorial Hospital, an ABWE (Association of Baptists for World Evangelism) hospital. The 32-acre complex contained hospital, clinic, housing and administration buildings, a nursing school and an open area where patients and family members stay for free. Most staff at the hospital are Togolese.

"Everyone knows that it is a Christian hospital and the staff are 95 per cent born-again Christians," she said.

"People come from long distances to the hospital."

The hospital is more than a two-hour drive from the capital city of LomŽ and about 40 minutes away from the nearest city. Patients come from Ghana, Benin and northern Togo, sometimes travelling for eight hours.

In Togo a patient's family is responsible for cleaning and feeding them. Patients bring their own bedding. Nurses are responsible for administering medications or changing dressings. No government health care is provided so patients pay about $100 for a hospital admission. Patients pay about $4.50 to see a doctor in the clinic, with lab tests and medications on top of that.

"They do have a fund there so if it's an emergency and people do not have money they're not going to turn somebody away," she said.

At the hospital Lisztwan saw many children with malaria. Because they can become severely anemic, they need blood right away along with anti-malarial medication.

"I saw quite a few children die over the month, which is very difficult because you don't see that here," she said. "Some of what happens is the parents try other things first so they go to the witch doctor or they go to the local dispensary and just try and get medication or they go to another hospital."

By the time they some of them arrived at the Karolyn Kempton hospital they were near death but even in cases where treatment isn't delayed malaria can kill in hours.

"There was a very chubby, healthy six-month-old baby that came in and an hour later was dead because we just couldn't resuscitate the baby. That's sad, it's just sad," she said.

She also saw a six-year-old girl with sickle cell anemia at the hospital.

"She had a huge spleen because of recurrent episodes of sickle cell crisis and malaria so every few months she would become quite sick and need to get blood transfusions," she said. "She has all these little scars on her abdomen over where the spleen is and that was from what they call 'fetish' or witch doctor."

As in North America, patients want to see a doctor to get help for their or their children's problems and there are those who want to be tested because they're worried and don't have symptoms, while some people wait too long to get medical help. But the lack of resources, medications and expert consultations make her appreciate Canada's health system, even with its flaws.

"The other thing that changed my perspective was I felt more whole as a doctor there because I could incorporate my faith into my practice there in Togo," she said.

Lisztwan said she'd probably go back again and she'd encourage other medical professionals to do the same.

"You go there to try and help people but really in the end you are blessed," she said. "People are so warm and friendly and the children's smiles are just amazing.

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