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Finding Comfort

com·fort – noun: state of physical ease and freedom from pain or constraint

Sometimes life is rich with irony. Such is the case with a sweet little girl named Comfort. While she is well known to many of our veteran Uganda volunteers, I knew nothing of Comfort until last Wednesday evening when the Team took a field trip to the Burn Village in Gulu.

The Burn Village is a place of respite for those being seen in the burn unit at Lacor Hospital as well as their families. It’s a Ronald McDonald House of sorts. The Village was brainchild of Medical Missions volunteers, nurse, Carla Northington, and occupational therapist, Amy Paulson. It is part of a larger initiative called the “Gulu Project” which is aimed at improving the recovery process for burn patients. They saw a need and were inspired to do something about it. And who exactly inspired them? Comfort.

Comfort and her family live in a small, extremely remote village. When she was just four year’s old tragedy struck. A hut in the village caught fire causing the roof to collapse and fall on Comfort. Who was standing nearby. The result was third- and fourth-degree burns – burns that seared her tiny body so deeply that they exposed portions of her skull and eventually caused the loss of four out of the five fingers on her left hand.

Comfort received very limited medical treatment at the clinic near her home – they simply were not equipped to deal with the severity of her injuries. Here in the States she would have received immediate medical treatment at a pediatric burn center followed by plastic surgery. Here in Uganda, the goal was to save her life.

Eventually Comfort was sent to the burn unit at Lacor where she has received ongoing treatment and ultimately stole the hearts of Carla and Amy. Travel from the village to Gulu was taxing on both her and her father who made the trips with her, leaving mom at home to care for the rest of the family. With multiple surgeries that often required long post-operative stays, the financial and emotional costs were so high that Carla and Amy knew they needed to do something – something that not only would help ease these burdens, but in doing so would benefit the physical healing process. And thus, the concept for the Burn Village was born.

Comfort and her father at the Burn Village.

In just two short years that concept has become reality. On a well-manicured parcel of land about 20 minutes from the hospital, now stands three individual family huts; an indoor kitchen for preparing meals; a deep well for drinking water; a rain barrel system; and a guest house which can be rented out to tourists in order to generate some income. Patients and their families stay here free of charge. The village provides patients a place to recuperate after or while awaiting treatments or hospitalizations. Families are even provided protein rich foods that are vital to the healing process. This transitional environment helps decrease the chance of infections and other complications and, perhaps equally as important, provide some level of comfort to those whose lives are anything but comfortable.

Quite appropriately, Comfort and her father were the very first guests at the Burn Village. Last Wednesday, they arrived once again as Comfort was scheduled for surgery with our team. That evening Carla and Amy hosted an open house – complete with a spectacular performance by a local traditional African dance team – to showcase the progress they have made with the Burn Village. It was there that I saw Comfort for the first time – standing amongst the team, drinking passion fruit juice out of a colorful paper cup and watching the performance. Standing just to the side of her, I couldn’t help but notice how her beautiful profile overshadowed the bandages that covered her head and neck.

I took the photo above and then turned to snap a few of the dancers. When I turned back, Comfort had also turned. She was now directly facing me, and I was facing devastating reality behind the smiling faces of the happy people of Uganda. The bandages, just like the smiles, couldn’t completely conceal the painful scars left behind by those unforgiving flames.

It made my heart sink. Sink in that way that literally takes the air from your lungs. Sink in a way that you don’t ever forget but wish you could. Then something really amazing happened. Comfort looked at me and smiled. Smiled in a way that made my heart soar as quickly as it had plummeted. Smiled in a way that, ironically, gave me comfort.

While our surgical team cannot undo the damage done by the fire, they were confident that they could help ease her pain and improve her quality of life. So, Thursday evening at 6 pm, Comfort’s father walked her into the pre-op ward at Lacor. Though our surgical team had started their day nearly 10the OR was still bustling with activity with no immediate end in sight. While surrounded by her American friends, it was clear that Comfort. was like any eight-year-old being prepped for surgery – excited and scared. The team immediately sensed that and moved into high gear. CRNA Sarah Myers scooped her up in her arms and carried her into the operating room where anesthetic gas was promptly administered so that she didn’t have to be awake for her IV. Age, small veins frequently used for other procedures, combined with insufficient hydration, meant that anesthesiologist, Heather Carter, would have to literally go hunting to find a “good” vein. After trying her right arm and right leg, frustration and concern began to set in. Dr. Carter is as good as they get so if she’s having trouble, you know how tricky it must be.

Before she attempted the left leg, she asked PACU nurse Meredith Jackson to join her on the hunt. That’s the great thing about Team Uganda, they truly work as a team – asking for and lending assistance whenever and wherever it’s needed. With a long nursing career, nearly 40 missions under her belt and stellar vascular skills, Meredith and Dr. Carter together quickly hit pay dirt and started her line.

It was now time for Dr. Levi Young and the remainder of his team – Lisa Sumonja and Jamie Young – to take the lead. Med students also sat in to observe Dr. Young and ask questions in hopes of learning some new techniques. It’s another one of the this mission makes a lasting impact on the community long after we leave.

The goal of Thursday’s surgery was twofold. The first to release the scar on Comfort’s lower left eyelid and graft skin to the lower lid. The scarring has caused the eyelid to pull down keeping Comfort from being able to completely close her eye. That in turn has not only been uncomfortable, but likely has caused some vision loss. In order to insure the success of the procedure, Dr. Young sutured Comfort’s left eye shut. Nurses in the burn unit will remove them in two weeks. It’s Dr. Young’s hope is that the procedure will not only allow her to fully close her eye but prevent the any additional vision loss. Once the eye was completed Dr. Young moved to her neck where he released a scar contracture on the left side that has kept Comfort from being able to completely turn her head. After two and a half hours in the operating room, Dr. Young was able to complete all the procedures and send her to the PACU before 9 pm! After recuperating in the burn unit, Comfort and her family will return to the Burn Village until she can safely return home.

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