The animals in Kayla Griffith’s backyard have changed in recent months.
Instead of seeing dogs and cats, now she sees lions, hippos, elephants and giraffes. It comes with the territory when you live in the remote African country of Tanzania, a place Dr. Griffith has called home since July 2016.
A graduate of the WCHS class of 2000, Griffith has journeyed to the other side of the globe to help a nation smothered by woeful healthcare. The difference in healthcare is as pronounced as the difference in animals.
“If a person is in the hospital and needs IV fluids, their family has to go out and buy the IV,” said Dr. Griffith. “The hospital provides nothing. The family has to buy their own needles and syringes, everything. If they can’t afford it, the patient doesn't get it."
Griffith talked about the pressing need for better healthcare in a shaky nation not equipped to offer it. Tanzania only gained its independence in 1964 and has never established firm financial footing.
“I’ve had to cancel surgery because there’s no water,” said Dr. Griffith. “I’ve had the power go out in the middle of surgery and had to finish with the flashlight on my cellphone. There’s a boy who has to stay in bed for eight weeks because he broke his leg and the family can’t afford to buy materials needed to make a cast.”
While that level of care may seem cruel, Dr. Griffith said many patients in desperate need of treatment never even make it to a hospital. That’s because there’s no ambulance system in Tanzania and few families have cars.
“If someone gets hurt way out in a rural area, they have to hope someone finds them and has the means to transport them miles and miles to a hospital,” said Griffith, 34. “If someone does help them and decides to get them to a hospital, it’s usually by bike.”
Griffith was working at a trauma center in Winston-Salem, N.C., when she made the life-changing decision to spend two years as a physician in Africa. She said a colleague had earlier mentioned the mission program, which is offered through the Touch Foundation.
“I had just gotten done treating a gunshot victim at 3 a.m. at the end of a 100-hour work week,” said Dr. Griffith. “I thought about this and it was an opportunity to do something different at a time in my life when I was able to step away.”
A McMinnville native, Kayla is the daughter of Bruce and Sherry Griffith. She was salutatorian of her WCHS class while also playing sports.
So what are her thoughts of Tanzania after eight months in the country?
“It’s a pretty simple life,” she said. “I have electricity most of the time and a refrigerator that works. We have to store water in 5-gallon buckets to prepare for the times when we don’t have water. Despite all the things they don’t have, you still find people being incredibly happy. A soccer ball can bring hours of joy. Pick-up soccer games are pretty common and really the only sport they play.”
Griffith told stories of entire families living in tiny huts about the size of a bedroom in an American home. She talked about crocodile and hippo attacks, which are in most cases deadly.
She talked of children, many who don’t have shoes, surviving on one big meal a week with only small snacks in between. She talked of mosquito netting being an essential commodity to sleep under every night because malaria is killing Africans of all ages each and every day.
Griffith believes she’s making a difference and is working to make her hospital more of a teaching center. She’s doing that with the hope local residents will continue the practices she’s instituting long after her mission trip is done.
“When I first arrived, it was astonishing for me to see the number of patients who were dying post-op,” said Griffith. “It seemed like every patient they operated on would end up dying and it was no big deal to them because that’s what they were used to. But I’m not used to that and I’m incredibly proud of the changes I’ve seen.”
Dr. Griffith made a presentation Wednesday to members of the Warren Community Interact Club, which collected and donated a number of medical supplies for her to take on her return to Tanzania later this month.
“You’re literally saving lives on the other side of the world,” said Griffith, who indicated it takes her three full travel days to get from McMinnville to her home in Tanzania. That includes two full days of air travel.
She brought two empty suitcases with her to take back such donations because she says shipping them is cost-prohibitive. Sometimes her packages don’t even arrive, she said.
“Shipping from the U.S. to Africa is a bit of a beast,” said Griffith. “Some friends from Wake Forest sent me a box of medical supplies and it cost them $850. Then it cost me another $250 to pick it up from customs. I told them everything in the box wasn’t worth $250 and it was being used to save the lives of their people, but they didn’t care. I still had to pay the $250 to pick it up. That's why I brought empty suitcases.”
To keep up with Kayla, you can follow her on her blog, kaylafaithgriffith.wordpress.com.