The story of Benoit
I travelled to Burkina Faso in July 2011, when I was 42 years old. I had been to Africa several times before, but had never dreamt of travelling there alone to a little hospital in Burkina. Also, being one of the youngest volunteers, I was able to learn from older volunteers to get a better perspective of how things work in our modern hospitals compared to the hospitals in Africa. I travelled to Burkina Faso to learn about a new country and see how things work in a different part of the world, in a way that a tourist would never see unless they were injured or sick. I not only travelled there to take part in this amazing opportunity, I went there to learn about a new way of life. In this little hospital, I was seeing injuries and illnesses that you would never have expected to see at home. After few days, we changed to a different medical ward, to provide assistance to children, such as neonatal care and paediatrics. They also gave us the opportunity to help clean and bandage wounds, help with pharmacy runs, take blood samples to the lab. In this little hospital I saw patients suffering from AIDS, diabetes which were septic, bullet wounds, cancer, drug addiction, malaria, typhoid, hunting or work injuries, premature babies, babies with birth defects, and even mental illness. Volunteers were also given an opportunity to work with nurses to help mothers with newly born babies in a nearby town. There we gave babies vaccinations, vitamins, and weighed them.
While I was in Burkina Faso, I talked with the mother of a boy named Benoit who suffered from cerebral palsy. These children normally are not given much attention since they are kept separate from children without disabilities. On the contrary, I saw a world that I had never imagined before, learning much more than I would have ever expected.
Sandy, the name of the mother of Benoit, told me her story in broken French. Sandy explained to me that 4 years earlier, in the month of July, contractions had begun. Everyone was in the fields working. With her there was only her oldest daughter. Sandy asked her to be accompanied to the hospital but could not find a person able to bring her
So, she began to walk, but halfway there, labour was getting stronger and, therefore, she decided to give birth in the shelter of a baobab tree. Childbirth was fast, since it was her fourth pregnancy, but the baby was born hypotonic, and did not cry. She tried to stimulate him, like the others, but an eternity passed before Benoit began crying, faint and hoarse, but at least it was a cry.
In the meantime, people from a nearby village approached and took her and Benoit to the hospital. Benoit had a complication of childbirth they told her. He had a lack of oxygen, and this had caused him brain damage. Benoit had a cerebral palsy. The mother told me the story of her son and I found all the symptoms and signs that made me think of an illness: the difficulty of feeding, the continuous drowsiness, the "swelling" of the face that seemed swollen, the constant, hoarse cry, and the stunted growth, the "swollen" belly, and that disproportionate aspect had struck me and reminded me of the old photos I had seen when I arrived at the Anna Meyer Children’s Hospital in Florence. Did Benoit also have congenital hypothyroidism? I worked to find a hospital where I could test his thyroid function, took a blood sample, and left for the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou. And there, the surprise: the tests confirmed my suspicion: Benoit had the congenital hypothyroidism. But it also confronted me with an unacceptable situation: that in that part of Africa we could not diagnose a disease that in the West has become "routine", as well as treating it, given the affordable cost of the drug. I then obtained the drug and provided it to the mother for treatment.
The story of Benoit requires us to reconsider our approach to African health, which cannot just be to help in the presence of acute problems, but to promote all-over improvement, including the diagnosis and therapy of many chronic diseases.
The story of Benoit is part of this Master.
Dott. Stefano Stagi