Traveling toward hope
Three-year-old Maria* and her parents are armed with everything they own – clothes, keepsakes, pots and pans, and wood gathered for cooking. For the past two days, they have traveled seven hours a day on a crowded bus and are now waiting at a bus stop, holding onto their belongings as tightly as they hold onto hope.
It hasn’t been easy leaving their village, but they’ve heard that Kamuzu Central Hospital (KCH) in Lilongwe, Malawi (a country in southeastern Africa) might have a treatment for the leukemia that has poisoned Maria’s body. They are willing to do whatever it takes to bring their daughter home healthy. But first, they have to find a way to get from the bus stop to the hospital with Maria, who is too sick to walk.
Suddenly, a car pulls up and a few doctors jump out. They carry Maria to the car and help her family pile in, their belongings loaded onto their laps.
This isn’t your typical hospital intake, but it’s how things go at KCH’s pediatric oncology ward – a place where treating kids with cancer means caring for their families, earning their trust, and sometimes, picking them up at the bus stop.
On the ground
KCH’s oncology ward runs in large part thanks to the Baylor International Pediatric Aids Initiative (BIPAI), an integral player in the global fight against pediatric HIV/AIDS, founded in the late 1990s. Since then, BIPAI has built on the foundation of their HIV/AIDS work to expand care to include treating malnutrition, tuberculosis, and maternal and pediatric health concerns in underserved areas all around the world – including oncology and hematology at KCH’s pediatric ward in Lilongwe.
Patients often travel far distances to receive care at KCH, and those going through cancer treatment might be admitted for several months. Unlike hospitals in resource-rich countries like the United States, there are no extra beds or family care facilities to house parents and siblings. Often, there aren’t even enough beds for every patient.
“The reality of a hospital in a place like Malawi is just ... it’s tough,” says Dr. Stephen Martin, a pediatric oncologist from the United States who began working with BIPAI in Malawi six months ago. “There are two or three patients to a bed. You have patients and families sleeping on the floor…but there are little things that we can do to make huge improvements in both the quality of the facilities and the quality of care that we have to offer them.”