My last week at KATH, I was assigned to the Emergency Medicine Red Ward, where the most severe patients in the hospital are treated. There were around 15 patients in the ward at any given time, ranging from young children to elderly adults. Immediately I was struck by the fast-paced nature of the Red Ward. Doctors and nurses wheeled patients around in their beds in a mechanized fashion. If one patient left, another was immediately brought in to fill the space. The beds were lined up against one long wall only a few feet apart, reminding me of an assembly line. Patients are only supposed to stay in the Red Ward for 24 hours, however many end up staying for several days due to overcrowding and under-resourced units. Although there were many nurses and students in the Red Ward, the number of doctors was low, considering the critical conditions of the patients. The Red Ward also appeared under resourced in some areas. For example, half of the monitors in the ward were broken and unusable. I saw patients in obvious signs of pain, oftentimes moaning or convulsing, who were not attended to. One young man threw up on himself, but he was not cleaned until 15 minutes later. Moments like this were difficult and painful to watch.
The most impactful part of my week was when a young woman died from a stroke in front of me. Along with several doctors and nurses, I was standing directly in front of her bed when she passed away; however, I didn’t even realize she had died until I heard her mother begin to shriek and a nurse covered her body with a sheet. Besides her mother, no one in the Red Ward reacted, or seemed to notice, the death of the woman. The woman’s body was then wheeled into the middle of the room and left unattended for several minutes. Witnessing this caused me to reflect on how the hospital functions as a work place. It appeared that doctors and nurses have become, in some ways, numb to the death of patients, and accept it as an unfortunate part of their work. Similar to other workplaces, the Red Ward played music. However, it seemed inappropriate to have Chris Brown and One Direction songs playing while patients and their family members were suffering. This background pop music was a stark contrast to the stressful nature of the room and may have been an attempt to alleviate some of that stress.
I will take a lot away from my time at KATH, and specifically from my time in the Red Ward. As I exited the ward on my last day, I passed by the family members of patients who sleep outside of the hospital sometimes on rented hospital mattresses, but more often on cardboard boxes. These family members are almost exclusively women, emphasizing their traditional role as caretakers. As I conclude my time at KATH, I will not forget the suffering I have witnessed, but I will also take with me the positive energy of doctors, nurses, and particularly students who are so eager to learn and help others. Although I am not a medical student, I have learned a great deal at KATH about suffering, empathy, and serving others that I will continue to carry with me.
Read about preventable trauma deaths at KATH in this study: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00268-014-2452-z
Read about Emergency Medicine in Ghana: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211419X1200122X