One of Only 1,500

By UPenn Volunteer Neurologist, Mike Baer

I met my first, and only, Hadza patient several days after arriving at FAME. We had been told that she was presenting with a seizure and a headache, but when I met her the story was more concerning. She had collapsed suddenly two weeks prior, seized, and since then hadn’t spoken a word to her family. When I examined her she was mute and weak on the right side. A head CT showed that she had a large intraparenchymal hemorrhage extending from the left temporal lobe to the left frontal lobe, which we felt was caused by either a ruptured aneurysm or a mass that bled. Either way, the prognosis was poor. We started her on antiepileptic medications and hoped to gain more information from a CT scan with contrast, which could reveal an underlying mass. 

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The Hadzabe, I learned, are an ancient tribe of hunter-gatherers, who are struggling for survival and live in the Lake Eyasi region, just an hour or so away from our home base in Karatu. They traditionally communicate with a “click language” and survive on hunting game and foraging for fruit and honey. There are no formal leaders and little social hierarchy, so most important decisions are made through group discussion. With the rise of agriculture, livestock herding, and tourism their ability to survive as hunter-gatherers has become tenuous, and today less than 1500 individuals remain, including our critically ill patient. 

Unfortunately, just two days into her hospital stay, the Hadza patient had a second seizure. She was extremely lethargic afterwards, and the head CT with contrast showed that the bleeding had extended into her ventricular system, which was beginning to expand to create hydrocephalus. Her prognosis, even with surgery to relieve the hydrocephalus, had gone from poor to grim. We spoke with Dr. Badyana, the physician in charge of her care, and together we sat down with the daughter, who had remained at the patient’s bedside. Dr. Badyana explained that the patient’s condition had worsened and that the bleeding would ultimately end her life. We showed the daughter the images from the CT scan. She didn’t say much and she remained calm but it was clear that the news affected her greatly. Her demeanor was one I had seen before, back in Philadelphia during some of my end of life discussions for similarly dramatic intracranial injuries. The Hadza woman passed away comfortably the following day. 

During our four weeks at FAME, I and the other neurology residents from the University of Pennsylvania had the opportunity to interact with and learn from members of a variety of other tribes. We visited Daniel Tewa, a member of the Iraqw tribe and local farmer and historian, who showed us a traditional house that he had constructed, modeled after the home he was born in. He taught us about the traditions and customs of his people, many of which were changing from the pressures imposed on the Iraqw tribe from outside forces. We also treated a large number of Maasai and one of our translators, Kitashu, a Maasai and a FAME social worker, was helpful in helping us understand Maasai culture and how it related to the counseling and treatments we provided to our patients. I was particularly struck by the close social circle I witnessed and the readiness of the community to help in times of need. 

Working at FAME was an incredibly valuable experience. The clinicians, already proficient in a wide range of domains, were eager to learn about neurological diseases, a topic not widely emphasized in Tanzanian medical education. While we did treat a large number of patients, the most rewarding aspect of my work at FAME was helping the medical staff strengthen their capacity to independently care for many of the neurology patients that we saw. I look forward to seeing how FAME and healthcare in Tanzania advances to address the unique needs of the country’s diverse population, from the Iraqw to the Hadzabe and the Maasai. 

 
Robert Kovacs