By Debbie Lester, Clinical Programmes and Country Director -

USA, The ISIS Foundation

On this International Volunteer Day, Clinical Programmes Director Debbie Lester reflects on the critical role of volunteers in sending life-saving medical equipment to the ISIS-supported Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Uganda.

Ten years ago, a small band of volunteers gathered in Seattle, Washington, to pack the first donated medical supplies bound for Kiwoko Hospital, in Uganda. That was the start of what is now the annual Packathon, an important local event that is supported by many local medical and community volunteers. It’s an intensive couple of days – hard work and fun – where we all work towards a common goal.

I can still take myself back 13 years ago to the overcrowded maternity and labour suites at Kiwoko Hospital where the staff worked by the light of lanterns, caring for high-risk women in labour, with few midwives and even fewer medical supplies. There was one adult size ambu bag, one glass thermometer, a small table, one bassinet and no pediatric supplies.

Average birth weight was 1000 grams and many babies needed intensive care. Training and development in newborn health was a top priority, and I wondered how staff could learn about pediatric care without the right tools. It was devastating to see medical staff battling against insurmountable barriers yet still giving everything to heal sick babies.

In Seattle hospitals, women had everything necessary for safe deliveries but, in rural Uganda, babies were dying because there were no medical supplies. And at every delivery in Seattle, equipment that was unused in a delivery room was tossed into the rubbish bin. It seemed an obvious move to save this discarded equipment and send it to Kiwoko, where it was needed so desperately.

Boxes of medical equipmentMedical staff at Kiwoko were right behind the idea, and everyone at the University of Washington Medical Center wholeheartedly offered their support. As the word spread, 10 Washington State area hospitals agreed to help. In the first year, suitcases of medical supplies evolved into air cargo containers of supplies. Less than a year later, we had so much gear that shipping was the best option – before we knew it, donated supplies filled a 20-foot container.

That was a decade ago. And for all that time, dedicated volunteers from Seattle have been unwavering. Throughout the year, they transport supplies from intensive-care units and labour wards to a central warehouse in Seattle. Then, every October, more than 100 people gather to sort, count and pack the gear ready for shipping to Uganda.

The future of critically ill newborns at Kiwoko Hospital relies on this generosity of spirit. It has been my extreme honour to witness the people of two far-flung communities hold hands in loving support of precious newborns. I don’t see the dismay that we saw at Kiwoko Hospital in those early days. Instead, I see high levels of care in the neonatal clinic, helped along by an amazing group of very special angels a world away in Seattle.


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