Aug 2003, "Kewpie of the Month" George Poehlman - Class of 1963
After graduating from David H. Hickman H.S., I, along with several others from our class, did six months of active duty with the Army National Guard. On return from Fort Gordon, Georgia, I traveled to India to spend six months with my parents who were working there through a University of Missouri exchange program. Returning to Columbia in the summer of ’64, I began college in the Engineering School, graduating in the summer of ’68. I married Betty that September, two days before starting Medical School at the University of Missouri School of Medicine. Betty taught English at Hickman during my medical school years. I received my MD degree in 1973.
We then moved with our two children, Christin and Jon, and I began my training in Family Medicine in Fairfax, Virginia outside of Washington, DC. Upon completion of residency, I returned to Columbia to join the faculty at the medical school where I stayed for two years. In 1976, we returned to Virginia, to Leesburg, also just outside of Washington, DC, where I went into private practice and where Betty and I lived for sixteen years while raising our children.
In 1993, I left private practice and returned to teaching, joining the
faculty at East Carolina University School of Medicine. At ECU, I
directed the Department of Family Medicine’s medical student teaching programs
for two years, then directed their residency training program for four
years. In 1999, with both of our grown children married, Betty and
I accepted positions with the Mission Service of the Presbyterian Church
(USA) and were assigned to eighteen months at a small mission hospital
in Embangweni, Malawi, in south central Africa. I was one of two
physicians serving a population of 100,000. Betty and I became very
involved in the battle against AIDS, starvation, and poverty in this extremely
friendly but destitute country. Since our return to the US, we have
continued to work towards helping those we came to know in Malawi and have
returned each year to provide continued guidance and support.
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Thanks to all Kewpies who helped us! George and I are back from our annual journey to Malawi, having furloughed in Cape Town for a one week R&R before coming home. As an aside, we highly recommend traveling to Cape Town, for those interested in adding the continent to their travel diary. While not the Africa that we experience in Malawi, Cape Town, its peninsula including the African penguins, and its fabulous “Winelands” make for a fabulous trip. It is chic, safe, affordable, and memorable. South African Airways, with its non-stop service to Johannesburg from JFK or IAD, then a two-hour flight onward, is really easy, just long.
While it was not our usual timeframe for our travels, we found Embangweni absolutely beautiful this season. Most of the blooms were over and villagers cut down their maize stalks during our stay, but the countryside was absolutely brilliantly green under magnificent skies that rival our own Carolina Blue. And . . . (for the first time in three years) people were happy and fat – not our kind of “fat”, but their faces were full and their countenance was different. I’m always reminded of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with its suggestion that self-actualizing behaviors cannot take place in the face of need for food, water, and shelter. With abundant harvest, some spare kwacha for meeting family needs such as shoes and school fees for your children, some were even investing in tin sheets to replace their thatch.
And, it was Easter-time. For those who have indulged us by reading our emails over the years, you may remember that Easter is more celebrated than Christmas. Embangweni was absolutely vibrant over the Easter holidays. Children and grandchildren had come home to be with family and to attend church services, including “sunrise”. Some of our team, including George, Christin, and Lindley will have that moment etched in their memory forever.
And, our team, including three doctors, a medical student-fourth year, and three nurses, provided a four-day exclusive coverage so that all hospital personnel had only the slightest of responsibilities during the holidays. That long weekend was absolutely the busiest in weeks, with all sorts of deliveries, sick children, and emergencies. It was baptism by fire, and all went from first-time volunteer to experienced health worker in a bush hospital in Africa – just like that!
While our Malawians counterparts were doing well, the hospital seemed to be having a hard go. Immediately we learned that the six-month pharmacy order from IDA in the and including CHAM – the big umbrella organization that further provides support and assistance to hospitals and clinics throughout the country. And, initially it was understood that neither the order would be replaced nor the money refunded until litigation between the drug company and shipping vessel had taken place. Shelves were getting pretty bare in pharmacy, and we had a hint that some things were completely unavailable, as we had SOS calls for certain drugs which we managed to carry over. In short, the situation was so critical on our arrival that we managed to rake together $US8150 among us to buy essential drugs (what we could find) from Central Supply in Mzuzu, but at a premium price.
Christin (yes, Christin, Cameron and Lindley made a return trip to Embangweni, having visited us in 2000), Charlotte Folsom (a dear friend from growing up in Missouri) and I went up with the pharmacy assistant and accountant on our fourth day to place the order, which then was filled and picked up by two hospital ambulances the following Tuesday. Really, it was the reason for much celebration – gloves, amoxicillin, and salve for burned patients, solution for sterilizing instruments. What we take for granted in this country.
Needless to say, path money was almost extinguished. We all felt good about the decision, though, as our mission in coming to serve at a mission hospital was absolutely enhanced by having appropriate drugs. And, good news came later in our visit: IDA had agreed to fill the lost order, though shipment was pending as they had shortages themselves by then, as our next six month order, the same for others, was queued up for filling, as well.
At any rate, the hospital is desperately short on funds. The emergency spending at higher costs, plus their first malpractice suit, ever, complete with a judgment (a tourniquet was left on the arm of a young child after starting an IV, resulting in an amputation) has left them in despair. Even the sacred health booklets, the ones that hold all their health information for a lifetime, were not available for the new babies born at Embangweni. Rather, a series of folded papers were being used as a health passport. (A minimum order is $US1000 and there simply has not been cash available for purchase and no credit extended.)
Never fear, though, we had designated funds for TIKO, and Charlotte, particularly, had collected funds from interested others in her KC, MO area. With our combined funds, we were able to get the AIDS Resource Center’s new building 1) painted, 2) outfitted with 6 tables, 4 desks, 40 chairs, and storage closets in three rooms, and 3) a new person with computer skills salaried for one year – the help with administration of the new building and with reporting, so vital to work in the AIDS arena. You may recall that the government funded this new building, located on four hectares (provided by the Chief), and it has been over a year in construction, from homemade brick making to move in. Monies ran out, however, and finish work had to be postponed. Fortunately, we have arrived home to some new checks that will allow the recent wiring of the facility to be connected to ESCOM, the provider of power, providing the much-anticipated electrification of TIKO.
And, just when we thought we had used our resources wisely – the water pump for the station went out! It was in our third week, on Thursday, and we really didn’t know what to make of the administrator’s reaction. She said that her last cash was to go to replacement of the master circuit and wiring at the guardian shelter – the place where the persons that accompany patients prepare patients’ food and boil their water, as well as sleep when not at the bedside. Apparently, wiring had been swung from administration building back in 2000 when it was built, placing both buildings in danger of electrical fire, something that happened in March with a short, then burning of wiring to the shelter.
Once again, we gathered our cash, coming up with $US600 to go with the hospital’s $US 800 for what was to be a $US1600 expense. By Wednesday of the final week, we had water again – and just in time for the family from Ogden, Utah arriving to take our place on Sunday. Somehow, our team was seasoned and it was just another challenge doing without baths, clean clothes, and flushing, but it seemed like a terrible way to introduce a first-time family, with three children, to uncertain conditions at a mission station.
Lots went well, though, and a lot was well received. Nurses were jubilant with 20 new blood pressure cuffs for infants and children. However, they learned soon enough that the child’s cuff better fit most Malawians small arms. At first opportunity, we’ll send more like these – another great purchase by Missoula (MT) Presbyterians. We had drugs and supplies made available from lots of suppliers, including CARE, and doctors prior to leaving. Customs gave us no trouble this year. We had laptops, cartridges, printer, stethoscopes, fabric, school supplies, baby clothes, children’s shoes, books, and Easter eggs – yes, we had three hundred empty eggs that we filled with little toys and chocolate candy for a 4 o’clock hunt on Easter afternoon for children of hospital employees.
We could go on and on about how we found Embangweni – a place like no other, as we want you who support us to know how timely our trip and your prayers and pennies were to the people. While we didn’t have the kind of path experiences that I love so to tell, we are simply grateful that it was a year where individual need could be set aside to meet group need, instead. Maybe everyone’s path was benefited with what help we could give to drug procurement, TIKO furnishings, and water pump replacement.
There are so many stories, so many projects that are so worthy that I am slighting with my long missive already, but please know that we are always very proud to represent your gifts and relate your thoughts and prayers to the people 11,000 miles away who are so very different, but so much the same. We witnessed their peace and contentment from having achieved a bountiful harvest and putting shoes on their children’s feet – just the same satisfaction everywhere in the world as people make their way in life.
Betty and George
Thanks again, to all those who helped with money and prayers!