The Kampala Explosions: AMREF’s Work Healing Invisible Wounds
AMREF Canada’s Melanie Sharpe was recently in Kampala for the African Union Summit and found herself in the middle of AMREF’s emergency response to the recent attacks in Kampala. View AMREF's response in PHOTOS here.
By: Melanie Sharpe
Today is my third day in Uganda and I’m heading to Mulago National Hospital’s Ward A2. The ward set up to treat victims of the July 11 bombings in the capital city, Kampala.
It was during the final World Cup game between Netherlands and Spain that the bombs exploded. The first one happened during half-time at a popular Ethiopian restaurant in Kampala’s Kabalagala neighbourhood – an area known for its restaurants and night clubs that cater to the city’s party crowd.
The second two explosions happened in close succession at Kampala’s Rugby Club.
Over 70 people were killed and more than 80 seriously injured.
It has only been a week since the attacks and yet, other than the heightened security at public places (shopping malls, coffee shops, hotels), Kampala is the bustling, lively city I remember from three years ago. Life must goes on. But, when I talk to my co-workers, taxi drivers and even the lady working at the café next to my hotel – everyone is horrified. Nobody saw the attack coming.
Mulago Hospital is one of the largest in Uganda – with more than 1,500 beds – but the bombing left it completely overwhelmed.
The hospital needed specialists - surgeons who could extract shrapnel from people’s bodies and who could perform brain, spine and reconstructive operations. So Uganda’s Ministry of Health has turned to AMREF’s Surgical Outreach team.
The team of ten, led by AMREF’s Head of Surgical Outreach Dr. John Wachira, arrived at Mulago Hospital to a warm welcome by Uganda’s Minster of Health, Honourable Dr Stephen Mallinga. The team would provide expertise in neurosurgery, orthopedics, anesthesiology, and intensive care.
During the reception, Dr. Wachira pointed out that it’s often the injuries we can’t see that are most difficult to heal.
Healing the Body and the Mind
Like many public hospitals in Africa, Mulago is a huge, poorly lit cement building packed with people. As I walk towards Ward A2 patients wander through the halls while overworked doctors and nurses rush through the jam-packed wards.
What strikes me most in A2 is how young everyone is. The majority of patients are in their 20s. Like 21-year-old fine art student Julius who had an object from the explosion lodged in his chest or 20 year old Fiona whose foot has been torn apart. Twenty year old Chance lost hearing in his left ear and has a massive wound on his torso. There are hundreds of tiny marks on the left side of Chance’s face from the explosion. These guys are all younger than me and doing exactly what I was dong on July 11 – watching the final World Cup game with friends.
Luckily all three will recover with few problems. Julius and Fiona will be operated on by AMREF surgeons and Chance’s injuries will eventually heal with time.
But for all of the victims it’s often the trauma that takes the longest to heal – and AMREF is tackling this as well.
Along with the surgeons and critical care nurses, AMREF brought psychologist Jael Alaro and trauma counselor Kefah Marango to Kampala’s Mulago Hospital.
“Many will suffer severely from trauma resulting in stress, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, phobias, paranoia. It will have a huge impact on their lives,” says Ms. Alaro.
The two specialists make their way through Ward A2 visiting around 16 patients every day. They encourage them to tell their story in a structured way, telling the patients it’s ok to vent out how the attack made them feel, their fears their worries their anger.
Patients are encouraged to write their story down – and continue to speak with the counselors every day.
Ms. Alaro explains that one patient she spoke to was at the Rugby Club during the attack. He was smashed in the head after the first explosion and was unable to get away before the second. The young man watched his friend die in front of him. There was nothing he could do.
“When you go through something like this you need support. Those who don’t have support don’t recover well,” says Ms. Alaro.
Long Term Support
AMREF has a long history of providing psycho-social care to trauma victims in East Africa. In 1998 AMREF assisted with victims of the American Embassy explosion in Nairobi that killed close to 300 people and injured 5,000.
AMREF’s two-person counseling team will only be in Kampala for a week, but in addition to treating patients they are also helping to set up a trauma centre so victims and their families can access to psycho-social support over the next year. They have promised to return as often as they are needed.
As Africa’s leading health development organization, AMREF always emphasizes the importance of tackling health problems in an holistic comprehensive approach – during this tragedy this becomes even more clear.
Eventually all of the patients in Ward A2 will go home and their physical wounds will heal – but the trauma will still exist. Thankfully AMREF is dedicated to ensuring an entire recovery – both physical and emotional.