A medical team of surgeons, medical students, nurses and others has traveled this month deep into Africa's Ivory Coast with a Norman nonprofit humanitarian organization to bring health care to what some refer to as “the forgotten people.”
They hail from various African tribes and often live with broken bones and treatable medical conditions because they lack access to care, said Jacob Meyer, media specialist with the Norman group called the 1040 Initiative, or 1040i. He called them “forgotten people” because of their isolation due to geography hundreds of miles from the country's main city and former capital, Abidjan, and due to civil wars that tore apart the Ivory Coast in the last decade.
1040i has been sending teams both to heal people and rehabilitate education in the area each year since Norman resident Mike Cousineau founded it in 2010 to help the country post-civil war. He has served in the area for more than 30 years with other groups, Meyer said.
This trip, however, Ivory Coast customs agents are jeopardizing 1040i's humanitarian mission. The agents won't release a container that 1040i members shipped from the United States last November filled with fresh medical supplies, new surgical equipment and construction equipment and school supplies, said Norman plumber Bob Usry, who has been on many previous trips but couldn't go this year. The government also won't give 1040i any clear direction of how to free the container from customs so the team can take it deep into Africa's bush country, to the village of Doropo in the north part of the Ivory Coast, hundreds of miles away.
“It's gone beyond stupid,” Usry said in a phone interview from Norman last week.
On Thursday, Cousineau, working in Africa, issued a plea via email for help to officials in the United States so the medical team can continue its second and final week in the country, and so a second group of construction team members can start their own work building a new school when they arrive later this week. Usry is among those seeking help on 1040i's behalf stateside.
“We have been using supplies left over from last year, but they are nearly depleted. ... We have been trying to clear this container since Dec. 31,” Cousineau wrote in the emailed plea currently being distributed to Oklahoma's Congressional delegation, state lawmakers and anyone who might be able to put pressure on Ivory Coast officials to release the supplies. “If the government of this people don't (sic) care any more about their own people, then why should the USA care about them? However, we as an organization want to rise much higher than this.”
The offices of U.S. Rep.Tom Cole, R-Moore, and U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, became aware of the situation late last week, staff members said. Cole's office noted that the staff planned to inform the Ivory Coast consulate, while Coburn's office was reaching out 1040i to work towards a resolution.
1040i's mission is to help people in selected areas of Africa and Asia with medical care, education and clean water; this month's teams include about 80 people working around Doropo, coming in two-week stints, Meyer said. The area is only accessible by roads that are either dirt or paved and filled with potholes. Once there, group members have limited contact with the outside world, mostly using satellite phones powered by electric generators to connect to the Internet or call if necessary.
The American medical team arrived a week ago and is performing surgeries and care in the country in tents and mobile medical units they brought in and set up for surgery and recovery, as well as in a cinder-block hospital with a metal roof and foldout windows that the group helped build, Usry said.
1040i is the only outside group working in the area, media specialist Meyer said in the interview via Skype from Abidjan late last month.
“If we don't help them, nobody will,” Meyer said, noting that the local hospital can only treat “minor, minor things.”
“Without us, people go without help.”
Making the trip
Meyer arrived in Abidjan in January to prepare for the medical team's arrival.
He said the 1040i group performed 145 surgeries last year; this year's crew includes five surgeons from across the United States — a general surgeon and doctors specializing in obstetrics and gynocology, cataract, orthopedic and maxillofacial surgeries. All pay their way and volunteer their time. They and other medically trained volunteers are prepared to heal bacterial and fungal infections, repair hernias and cleft lips, remove tumors, fix bladder problems in women who have given birth, and more.
“You just try to take care of whatever needs these people have,” said Patrick Higgins, a fourth-year medical student Oklahoma State University's medical school in Tulsa who is among the returning volunteers this year. “They're just a very grateful people and when you see that it breaks your heart for them and makes you want to reach out to them even more. ... As a medical person, it's very frustrating because of your lack of resources.”
Dr. Perry Brooks, of Norman, also is among the returning crew who went last year.
“I love taking care of people, and there's a great need,” said Brooks, the maxillofacial surgeon, in an interview before he left. “We own about 35 to 40 percent of the world's wealth in this country so I think giving back is critical.”
He said the group will work side-by-side with Ivory Coast residents, including the nurses and those who run “the dilapidated hospitals.” 1040i planned to replenish supplies for the year and are available for consultations the rest of the year by Internet and phone.
On tis trip, Higgins planned to look for a child of about 11 or 12 that he met last year and who was covered in scales that flaked off his skin. Since he returned home after last year's visit, Higgins, 31, has researched possible causes for the condition and interviewed pediatric infectious disease specialists to try to figure out what was wrong with him. He went armed with antifungal medicine this trip and hoped to find him again.
“I can't imagine what this kid must be going through,” Higgins said, remembering acne problems as a young person. “If I can help that kid just a little bit, then my trip is made.”
For Higgins, the hardest part will be leaving behind the people still waiting for care.
“As you leave you're like, ‘more next time, more next time,'” he said.