Ugandan Outreach Project in Gulu

GULU project Uganda

How with Somanda support our students are really making a difference and enriching their skills and experiences along the way.

By Sophia Signorini, Ali Al-Naher, Dylan Hamill, Melina Hedayat and Uthman Hamid.

A few words from Ali: This summer I embarked on a trip to Uganda with 4 colleagues from the University of Manchester Dental School. We travelled as part of the Northern Ugandan Village Health and Outreach Project (NUV-HOP), a student led organisation that mobilises healthcare to remote Northern regions of the country where health services are scarce and resources even more so.

The Project only consisted of a medical team made up of medical students from Uganda, Belgium, and the University of Manchester until a year ago when current team lead Sophia Signorini saw the opportunity of adding a dental arm and thus, with Dylan Hamill, Melika Hedayat, Uthman Hamid and myself, the dental team was formed.

This was our plan: alongside our 30-strong Medical counterparts who would be providing Malaria, HIV and Hep B testing and treatment as well as family planning services, our small team of 5 would tag along and provide preventative dental treatment and education.

Over a period of 6 months, extensive and meticulous planning was undertaken by our team lead to ensure we had the appropriate equipment, staff and approval to allow us to provide safe and ethical treatment to the locals. After a few extra oral surgery sessions in the dental hospital (organised by some very supportive tutors) and lots of fundraising, we were ready to go.

When we arrive: we were exposed to the vast health inequalities experienced by the locals following years of war and instability under the hands of Joseph Kony and the LRA as well as a direly underfunded healthcare system.

Spending a week at a government hospital providing dental treatment out of a small room to a catchment of 9 million people (most of whom would travel 100s of miles to get there) acclimatised us to the way dentistry works in a resource deprived environment, namely that extractions were the gold standard of treatment and that antibiotic prescription was as conservative as Jeremy Corbyn.

Equipped with our £30 Argos gazebo, some plastic chairs, 3 Ugandan dentists, 3 Ugandan dental students and all the equipment we’d need, we travelled to a remote health centre with the rest of the Project to set up for our first outreach. Locals had been informed of our arrival months in advance and so we expected somewhat of a turnout. We had initially budgeted to see 50 patients per outreach. This quickly went out of the window as we saw over 100 on our first day.

Below are the diary updates the team kept during their clinics:

Entry 1: After a few hours of travel from the Kampala, the dental team has arrived in its final destination- Gulu!!! We’ve settled into the house with our incredible host family and have explored Gulu town centre! Now it’s time for some recovery from the long journey from the UK to Uganda, though spirits are high and we’re all looking forward to our hospital placements beginning on Monday

Entry 2: We have been using the weekend to get our bearings in our new home. From boda rides to market trips for textiles we are fully in awe at how welcoming the locals are. A few days in and our hearts are well and truly full. We have now also met all of the lovely Manchester medical team. Due to a wee storm we had to practice popping the gazebo for outreach in our host family’s home. Happy that we can fit 3 chairs in there at one time! Excited for the week ahead in hospital!

Entry 3: Today we had our first outreach. Less than 1 hour away from Gulu we set up camp in Koch Li, alongside the Manchester, Belgian and Ugandan medical teams. Our little gazebo with plastic chairs and our trangia autoclave set in a corn field allowed us to see over 80 patients. 80 patients, the majority of which likely don’t have the means to get the regional referral hospital, the majority of which would otherwise have to endure dental pain with no means of relief. To be frank, we are proud of ourselves. From getting there in one piece, to setting up efficiently, to helping the locals. For all who have supported us, financially and otherwise – we hope you are proud of yourselves too. Literally could not have made any meaningful impact without you and your support.

Entry 4: What a day, despite heavy rain nearly washing our tents away we made it through our second outreach, this time at Awoo. Not only did we make it through but absolutely smashed it. Mel and Uthman spent a portion of the day delivering health talks at the local school and applying fluoride varnish to 101 kids. Prevention is important the world over – we are glad to have contributed to the effort here. The three 3rd years with 3 Ugandan students and dental officers extracted teeth from 125 patients. Pulling resources from out of our ears (thank you so much medical team) we saw an unforeseen amount of patients. Proud once more and thankful once more for the opportunity which many of you reading this post provided.

Entry 5: Today. Today is what it is all about. (Warning it’s a long one – but me oh my what a day we had). The start to the morning at Odokonyero felt slow. Somehow well before lunch we had still seen 50 patients – the original number projected per outreach. Mel and Uthman at a nearby school again gave preventative advice and fluoride varnish to over 120 young people. Things were ticking over nicely until… disaster! The gas for our autoclave was completely tapped.

Our legend of a bus driver, Ronald with 2 dental officers drove back to Gulu town to get it topped up. Whilst waiting for their return we had to improvise and improvise we did – but none more than our Ugandan dental student compatriots who were once again inspiring and a testament to Gulu University. Upon their return the stove would not light, the gas station had either wiped our eye or the canister was simply faulty. With 103 patients seen and 21 waiting the clock was ticking and the clouds were threatening a serious downpour. We kept a positive mental attitude and we kept the faith.

The sister at the outreach centre kindly offered us her charcoal pit at her nearby home. Patrick one of our dental officers kept the fire going and finally we had clean instruments. Just before the kettle boiled we had a police line up of all 21 patients for local anaesthesia. Once the instruments arrived it was like clockwork. With 9 chairs set up like the round table for the 3 dental officers, 3 Ugandan dental students and three 3rd year Manchester students to operate on and Mel, Uthman and some helpful medics to provide head support – all 21 patients were sent on their way just in time for dinner. It really is alien feeling proud of ourselves so often – we’ve said it once and we will say it again, thank you all for your support.

No matter how long this post actually is – we really can’t put into words the emotions that ran today. With the help of our donors we were able to perform extractions on over 450 patients and provide preventative care and education to countless more during our time there. However there were more patients that could have been seen. Unfortunately due to the rising number of malaria cases in the region this year, our medical counterparts also experienced a larger number of patients than expected. Even whilst doing everything they could, treating over 1000 patients per outreach, there were days where the number of sick patients were too many and some could not be given the life saving drugs they needed.

The need for a greater change in healthcare worldwide as well as a humbling appreciation for our NHS was highlighted throughout. For all of us, the whole point was to make a lasting impact and this is being achieved by planned follow up teams and recurrent visits to the areas as well as an emphasis placed on health education by both medical and dental teams. Before going I didn’t know what to expect of the country or the project.

For the country, I am in awe at how beautiful it is and how warm the people have been towards us, we truly felt at home. As for the project, it is astonishing and so empowering to see how much of an impact has been made on people’s lives from something organised entirely by students. It is a testament to what can be achieved by a like-minded determined group of people with a common goal of doing good.

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