Annnnd we’re off! The 2013 Uganda Spine Surgery Mission officially began on Thursday, August 8 at London Heathrow Airport. This year’s team of six– the smallest team yet– gathered from a smattering of departure cities, including Dallas, Toronto and Tel Aviv. Flying in from Dallas were team lead Dr. Izzy Lieberman, his daughter (and chef extraordinaire) Danielle, and two veteran spine surgery missioners, scrub nurse Sherri LaCivita and medical equipment sales rep Rob Davis. Dr. Zvi Gorlick, a family physician in Toronto, joined the team for the first time, as did I (Jennifer Teichman), a medical student from the University of Toronto.
After a quick caffeine boost at the airport, we dumped our luggage at airport storage and scurried into London for the day. When a two-hour line thwarted our attempt to visit the Sherlock Holmes Museum, we hopped into a cab and found ourselves at Trafalgar Square after a quick drive-by of Buckingham Palace. All six of us clambered up the gigantic lion statues for our first team photo.
We touched down in a rainy Entebbe around 7:30am, sleepy-eyed yet itching to get started on the mission! Our collective enthusiasm met its first challenge when my laptop was stolen from the airplane. As a newcomer to the mission, I learned my first lesson of the trip: keep your valuables on you at all times, no exceptions. Our first driver, Eric, then appeared not with the 40-seat bus we thought was to be provided by the Mbrara University of Science and Technology (MUST), but with a small pickup truck and a 6-person van. This was my first hint that things don't always go as planned in Uganda. We loaded the truck with our bags, piled ourselves into the van and started the bumpy 60 minute drive into Kampala, the capital and largest city in Uganda. Our first stop was Case Medical Centre, a private hospital that served as a base for the mission in previous years. This year, however, we were only there to pick up the medical equipment they had stored for us from last year. Danielle and I held down the fort by the luggage-laden truck while the rest of the team retrieved the equipment. Rumour has it that while hoisting a big bag of surgical equipment, Zvi lamented Izzy's choice of profession, and graciously provided us with our first quote of the day: "Why couldn't you have been an ophthalmologist!?"
Quote of the day (#2): "I'm so full, I don't even have room for a tic tac"
Move in day! We awoke to a beautiful morning in Kampala, and hit the road after a hearty breakfast at the hotel. First stop: The Nakumatt Oasis, the Zeus of all department stores. There, amongst the impeccably clean and organized isles, one can find everything from toothpaste and vodka to washing machines and power tools. It puts Walmart to shame. After stocking up on what is reportedly the world's best coffee beans, we piled back into the van and continued the five hour trek to Mbarara. Newly paved, the road to Mbarara traverses a landscape of rolling green hills, flat valleys of cultivated land and dirt paths dotted with shacks selling local fruit, meat, fish and potatoes. There was a collective cringe as we passed trailer after trailer of live bulls packed tighter than sardines, their ferocious horns piercing the air above them. Every half hour or so, the serene landscape was broken by the bustle and dirt of a small village with decrepit store fronts ironically painted in advertisements for Coca Cola and Nokia. Within an hour of the ride, our clothes were covered in a thin film of copper-red dirt kicked up by fellow drivers and boda-boda cyclists.
We arrived at our hotel in Mbarara, the Lakeview, and were pleased to find large, comfortable rooms. Anxious to start our work, we gathered our medical equipment and drove to the Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital, our base for this year's mission. We were met there by a spectacular surprise: last year, the hospital had opened an entirely new wing including an Intensive Care Unit, Emergency Department and operating theatres. We set to work right away, unloading the equipment from the truck and transporting it to a temporary storage room in the Emergency Department.
Quote of the day:
"It's ok, you can take your skirt off here.. we're all medical professionals"
"The food is.... edible...."