The Strength in What Remains

Dr. Michael with a little patient, Photo by Ali Mendelson

Dr. Michael with a little patient, Photo by Ali Mendelson

By Neurologist, Dr. Michael Rubenstein

I am taking today's blog title from an amazing book by Tracy Kidder about a young medical student who survives the genocide in Burundi to find himself in the United States. It's a true story and so as not to give away too much I will suggest that you find a copy and read it. The inspiration for today's blog, though, is another amazing story of strength and hope here in Northern Tanzania.

Our very first patient of the day was a young woman who had recently been diagnosed with epilepsy and was on a medication that she was not taking on a regular basis. Thus, she was continuing to have seizures. After taking our history and examining her, though, we had some concern for the type of epilepsy she had and felt that an EEG would help to sort it out as the medication one uses is often dictated by the type of underlying epilepsy the patient has. We brought her over to the ER which is serving as our makeshift EEG lab for the time being and the epilepsy team hooked her up for a study. She was patient No. 1 for this groundbreaking technology at FAME. Amazingly, she had exactly the type of epilepsy that IS NOT well treated by the medication she was taking and she was converted over to a medication more effective for her condition. In fact, the medication she was on can sometimes worsen seizures for patients with her condition. This could certainly make the difference between well controlled and poorly controlled epilepsy which would make all the difference in the world for this young woman.

We saw an early tremor dominant Parkinson's patient who we had not seen before - Dr. Thu was incredibly excited since she will be going into a movement disorder fellowship next year and this was right up her alley. We saw another stroke patient who I first saw in 2011 and continue to follow up with on a regular basis even though he has continued to do well. The hardest thing here is to get patients to remain on their long term medications, though, as it is just something they aren't used to doing. We had wanted him to remain on aspirin but he had unfortunately stopped it several months ago after his prescription ran out. It is not due to non-compliance, or lack of adherence as they now refer to it, but rather that it's just something that isn't build into their culture at the present time. We'll continue to work on that.

So now for the story that inspired the title for today. A woman was brought to FAME today by her friend and eldest son. She is 47-years-old and the single mother of five children and the primary caregiver for her elderly mother. One year ago, during the night and for no apparent reason, people came into her home and threw acid onto her face. Those responsible have never been caught and there was no clear motive to suggest why it may have happened in the first place. She spent two days in a local dispensary (about three hours from FAME) before they realized that she needed more extensive care. She was then transferred to another hospital where she spent only three days. Antibiotics and bandages were applied and she was sent home. When she arrived home she found that many of her possessions there had been stolen. The acid has disfigured her face to such a degree that she has lost both of her eyes and is now blind and all that remains of her nose are two small holes for nostrils.

Despite this horrendous injury and disfigurement, she has persevered and has a remarkable attitude. When asked about any sad thoughts, she does admit to some concerns as to how she will continue to care for her children and her elderly mother, but says that she has accepted what has happened to her and is ready to move on. Her only complaint to us was a minor headache. She was an incredibly lovely woman and when she spoke it was quite easy to forget her disfigurement or the ordeal that she had been through. At the end of our visit, she asked if she could have a photo of her with Thu and myself. I think all of us wondered if we would have that amount of strength had we been put through a similar situation. And, almost to add insult to injury, we found today that she also has diabetes as her blood sugar was extremely elevated and that this will also need to be dealt with. As I walked beside her to the lab for her blood work, I could feel the strength and livelihood emanating from this woman who made me realize that in the depth of our struggle for survival, there are always those unlikely individuals who have demonstrated an even superior strength to have risen from further depths and will always give us eternal hope that we may do the same. It is these unlikely encounters that remind of us of our internal strengths.