by Jennifer Smith, PortalWisconsin.org
For University of Wisconsin Hospital nurse Susan Dillon Gold, "global health" isn't a catchphrase or an abstract concept. Spending two months in fall 2003 volunteering at an AIDS orphanage in Kenya was a life-changing experience for her. "I don't confuse 'I need' and 'I want' anymore," she says. The Madison nurse also feels a greater sense of connection to the rest of the world.
Gold is a lively woman with close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair and wire-rimmed specs. She takes great pride in being a UW pediatric nurse, but overseas service called to her as well. She took a temporary, unpaid leave of absence from her job to spend time in the village of Karen, in the African nation of Kenya. There, she volunteered in a children's home founded by an American Jesuit priest. Many of the children's parents have died of AIDS, and many of the children are ill as well.
The AIDS epidemic has taken a harsh toll on Kenya, where about 15% of the adult population has the disease. Life expectancy for Kenyans is under 46 years. A number of factors contribute to the spread of the disease: dense urban populations living in unsanitary conditions; lack of access to anti-retroviral drugs; prostitution; mother-to-child transmission; and a lack of education for young girls that leaves them dependent on older men. AIDS orphans number in the hundreds of thousands, and many are HIV-positive themselves.
Nyumbani, the children's home where Gold volunteered, lies 30 miles from the capitol of Nairobi. The kids she met there were, in many ways, like kids everywhere. However, they face challenges that are hard to imagine in the United States, where access to sufficient medical care, while not a reality for everyone, is at least more prevalent. "These kids work so hard to live every single day," Gold says, but they remain positive and hopeful. She bonded with the children and stays in touch with people in Kenya to hear about how they are doing, but, sadly, some of the children Gold met have since died.
During her 2003 Kenya stay, Gold also spent time volunteering in a large hospital, Kenyatta, in Nairobi. There she found 1,600 patients crammed into an 800-bed facility, which leads to the spread of disease.
Gold hopes to return to Kenya as soon as she is able. In the meantime, she sends money and supplies to a trusted friend there. She also tells others about her experiences to spread awareness about the health challenges faced by Kenyans and to inspire others to act. She wouldn't give up her experiences in Africa for anything, despite working without the kinds of medicines, supplies and equipment she is used to as an American nurse. "Where the difference is made is one-on-one," Gold says.
More on global health: A Wisconsin Public Television (WPT) series airing Nov. 1-3, 2005, "Rx for SurvivalA Global Health Challenge," examines the challenges of public health in the 21st century. Leading up to the broadcast, WPT will host a health fair at the Capitol in Madison and a series of three lectures. Find out more.