The area surrounding the South African town of Piet Retief is immense and hardy. It is a timber-growing region, with trees and lumber lining both sides of the roads heading out of town as far as the eye can see.
Occasionally a little road or trail will appear among the tall trees. It’s the orphans of the small villages along them that stir the heart of several UAB employees. They have been to this land for the past two years to bring the most vulnerable love and hope.
Respiratory Therapist Phillip Hood and nurses Melissa Garner and Beth Craig will leave again Jan. 28 for a 10-day journey into this part of the world where medical care is a luxury.
“This is just something we’re very passionate about,” Hood says.
A few years ago, Hood and his wife Wendy, a former UAB nurse, decided they wanted to use their medical skills to help children somewhere in the world. They had no idea where they wanted to go, but they knew they wanted to do something.
“It’s just something we felt strongly about,” Hood says. “You’ve heard people say they have a calling. Our calling was to reach out to orphaned children.”
As fate would have it, Len Weston, minister of Wellspring Ministries in Piet Retief, visited the Hood’s Daystar Christian Center church in Gadsden and spoke of the need of the children in the area. The local church provides the care it can in the form of medical supplies and food to 400 of an estimated 2,000 orphans near it.
After hearing Weston speak, the Hoods knew South Africa was where they wanted to go. They made their first trip in 2008. In 2009, they added Garner, other caregivers and construction workers who helped to build a water supply in one village — a much needed resource for the area. Craig is joining this year’s team for the first time.
In the area, children and adolescents care for most of the infants and toddlers. Hood has seen children as young as 8 serve as the primary caregiver for infants. The AIDS epidemic in the area is one reason; the need for adults to find work to make money is another.
“Their parents usually try to find a way to get into the city,” Hood says. “They may find a job, but for some reason they then abandon their kids.”
Into the field
A local nurse who had worked in the area for two years showed the Hoods’ team how to administer care for the villagers during their first visit two years ago. She loaded up a truck with supplies and drove into the villages where she stopped and waited. One person would show up followed by another. Soon others began to show up.
“I remember the first one we did,” Hood says. “We drove up this little hill in the village and sat there. People started coming after a few minutes. Before you knew it, they were coming from all directions to see what they called the American doctors or American nurses. It spread by word of mouth very quickly that medical treatment was available.”
Hood said one particular patient caught their attention this past year — an 18-month old who was in dire need of medical care.
“He was lethargic and running a fever,” Hood recalled. “We were very fortunate because we had enough money to send him to a hospital for the antibiotic and fluids he needed. We don’t know if he would have survived had he not gotten treatment.”
The most common problems caregivers see on their visits are headaches — many brought on by high blood pressure — and respiratory issues. Doctors’ offices have donated inhalers and Tylenol in the past. Hood’s team members write out directions on how to use the products, and interpreters explain to the villagers how to use the medicine.
They also put together numerous first-aid kits for area caregivers that they leave behind after they leave, and they train them how to use the supplies.
“We train the caregivers on how to clean out wounds, use ace bandages properly and apply antibiotic ointment,” Hood says. “We also show them how to teach villagers to wash their hands, brush their teeth and other basic hygiene maintenance. We do this type of training for the caregivers who live with the orphans.”