Written by: Deddeh E. P. Supuwood, MD.
Everyday we hear all around us that quality healthcare delivery in Liberia is lacking and it is not a fantasy, neither can it be over-emphasized. As health care workers in Liberia, we face the challenges of coming in contact with patients that are in need of so many things but are compelled to watch helplessly as we offer very minimum or no service at all to these patients. I cannot express in words exactly how this makes us feel. In fact, it has almost become a normal practice as doctors in Liberia to say to our patients “I know what is happening to you but unfortunately I don’t have the means of treating you right now”. Sad, isn’t it?
As a young medical doctor who has so much passion for what I do, I have had this experience one too many times, both in my personal and professional life. Growing up, my family and I had to go through an exceedingly long and emotionally difficult battle: my mother was diagnosed of breast cancer at the age of 41. We watched helplessly as she fought this disease for eight years and we watched as it gradually invaded her body until she finally succumbed to it. Having lost my mother to this silent and common yet unknown killer, I promised myself that if given the opportunity to study, I would study cancer to save others from meeting same demise as much as I could.
I watched and listened through the years as I heard stories of people dying from cancer both in and outside of Liberia. What makes Liberia’s situation even more peculiar is the fact that we do not have a cancer center in Liberia where people battling this disease can get proper health care- just another of our many sad stories.
Fortunately, the opportunity came, and I was awarded a scholarship to pursue my dream of becoming an oncologist (cancer doctor). Being eager to offer my service to my people, I returned home for a short vacation and decided to go to work.
It was a sunny day and a terribly busy one too in the outpatient clinics. My colleague had alerted me that she was referring a patient to me and I sat in the screening room waiting for her. As she walked in with her relative, I watched this very frail woman who had obviously lost a lot of weight. What was even more striking was that this woman’s abdomen was grossly and unevenly distended (big and knotty stomach), and she had jaundice (commonly called “yellow janus” in Liberia). My heart sank as I had already started going through the possible diagnosis in my head. Eventually, we went through the entire process of history taking and examination and labs were ordered.
Quite a few hours later, we had all the lab results put together and there it was! Exactly what I thought – this lady had liver cancer! What was even more frustrating for me as her doctor was that I could not offer her much help after that as the single medication she needed was nowhere to be found in Liberia. How do I tell this lady that she has liver cancer yet I cannot do anything about it? How do I tell her relative that all they needed to do was take her home and make her feel as comfortable as they could until she finally succumbed to this disease? This made me realize the burden and urgent need we have to establish a center where people like this lady can seek medical care.
We continue to fail our patients because of many circumstances that are beyond our control. We fail to invest in quality health services in Liberia. We continue to watch helplessly as people die from preventable diseases in our country and what we forget is that good health is the key to a productive life. If we must prosper as a country we need to take ownership of our health sector, invest in it and make it available, assessable and affordable for our citizens. Through this endeavor we all can be healthy, happy and continue working together to make Liberia a better place for everyone.
About the author: Deddeh is a Medical Oncology Resident at the National Cancer Institute in Cairo, Egypt. She hails from Liberia, West Africa and recently served as Deputy Case Management Pillar Lead, Montserrado County Health team Covid19 response.