Chapter 21 – Betty’s New Clinic

clinic side view

clinic foundation 2 cropped

Clinic foundation with help by young fellows from Bingham

We needed a decent building for the clinic. The tent served Betty reasonably well but certainly had its shortcomings.

Betty and I drew up plans in preparation for the frame construction. Bill Schmidt, a mission builder, took the plans and prepared all the frame members in his shop in Sheshemane (the nearest SIM station – a hospital and leprosarium). The lumber for walls and trusses were clearly labelled for Mark and I to easily put up the main frame.

Thankfully, some young men from Bingham Academy were visiting and helped with the foundation.

clinic framing

Mark framing the new clinic

The building was ready for painting by October and Betty was able to move in. The floor plan provided three main areas: the covered front veranda which served as a waiting area, a larger inner room for registration and treatment, and a locked back storage room right across the width of the clinic for equipment and medicines.


Weight and age of the patients

I always quickly guessed the age of my patients. Many didn’t know, and for some reason, it made some of them embarrassed and giggley when we asked. I also guessed at their weight. I gave medicines to children on whether they were half size of an adult, quarter of an adult, and so on!

Gunnamo, great helper

Jeff - clean chicken

Gunnamo in his younger years helping Jeff clean a chicken … or was it the other way around?

I had a pantry full of basic medicines. I also had an alphabetical card file with a card for each patient. I wrote the names in English phonics to make it easy for myself. On this card I recorded the guessed weight and age and took fairly full nursing notes for future reference.

But, mainly I had Gunnamo, a tall, polite and kind young Christian Arsi man. He was my translator, translating the local Arsi to Amharic (the trade language) or into the English he was learning. He helped people to understand me and my strange, foreign ways. He basically managed his people when they came for nursing help. He had been found by Borema, our trusty right-hand man. He started out with me in the tent, and when Norm didn’t have time to build me an examining bed for the patients, Gunnamo volunteered, and we slapped a mattress on it and used it for years. He would be the one to have to say, with a serious face, “Okay, pay now”. When I had a cute baby on the examining bed, I would tend to try to catch its eye, and click my tongue on my palate. Gunnamo warned me very politely that such a noise was not acceptable in their culture.

clinic waiting

Patients waiting in the porch.

On the wall, I posted two large pictures of Ethiopian babies. One was sick: pale, thin and sad, a little rag tied as a headband around its head, (their custom for sick babies). The other picture was of one very well, fat, smiling baby, with a bounce about it. If there was time and a mother or two were in the clinic, I would try to start a conversation about the babies. I would help the mother understand what could help to make babies well in their culture. It wasn’t easy for the mothers, but they really needed to boil their cow’s milk before giving it to the baby. Many of the cows had TB. I encouraged them to grow papaya. It was such a good baby supplement of vitamins and minerals. We sold, at rock-bottom price, the Swedish Aid’s “Fafa” a supplemented baby cereal. Also, we sold “Vitamul”, a tonic for children. It must have worked well, because it was popular. I was learning, too, what worked in this culture and what didn’t.

Being a socialite, I sometimes went to Addis Ababa, the capitol, with Norm on his short business trips about every six weeks. I loved staying at the SIM guest house, meeting old friends, making new ones. The nurses from isolated stations often gathered around the table after meals. I loved sitting on the edge, listening to their chatter, learning lots at the same time. (The word among the mission men was, don’t join nurses talking together, you might hear stuff you don’t want to hear!) I picked and picked at their brains. One nurse told me that medicine was so new to countryside Ethiopians, they often, contrary to instructions, went behind the clinic and downed a whole bottle of medicine. Shudder.

One of these nurses passed away from a heart attack. She knew she had incurable heart disease, but wanted to stay and carry on with her ministry. She died playing volleyball at our SIM vacation resort. A lovely way to go to heaven. She left her small estate to the Lake Langano clinic. It was a God-send. So we named it “The Marie Cilley Memorial Clinic”.

One little girl surprised me

She was about 10 years old. She seemed to me to have TB. I got so that I could almost recognize TB patients before they got to the examining bed. They were a strange colour. All my diagnoses were folksy and unscientific, but a lot of people were helped – a God thing. I treated her for TB of the lymph nodes – cheap weekly injections of streptomycin and tablets. I also gave her a wrapped Ethiopian candy for bravery. She and her mother walked a long way each week in their drab homespun clothing and bright market head-scarves, to get the injection. Langano was a lovely climate – I guess maybe the walk was a welcome outing for them. She got better, and when I finished the series of injections Gunnamo told her that she didn’t need to come back. Instead of being relieved like I thought she would be, she was mad, and threw the candy at me!! I guess she saw the experience much differently than I did! Cultural differences? Poor communication? Different expectations?

The catheter

A well-known man from one of the clans near us couldn’t pass his urine. I had a sterile male catheter on hand, and thought I would try to put it in, even though I doubted that I could. So, Gunnamo and I worked together on it, with the curtains drawn around the bed. When we looked up, there alongside the bed, the high windows (designed for light and privacy) had a crowd of animated Arsi men’s faces against them!! They had hauled a bench from the waiting room, stood on that and editorialized and laughed at everything going on. I was unsuccessful, and we took him to the SIM hospital about 50 miles away. He refused to have his prostate removed, but they catheterized him and showed him how to release the clamp and pee. Unfortunately he removed the catheter and passed away.

Whooping Cough at Langano

Clinic - Baby with bottle

Whooping cough was endemic

During my time, whooping cough was endemic at Langano. Endemic means it quietly lived there, and anybody could get it; it was quite prevalent. The cough was a terrible thing to hear, especially a baby with it. The person coughs, coughs and then whoops with the cough and sometimes can’t get their breath. We are so blessed in Canada with good vaccines.

At Langano, some of the men took second wives, and sometimes a third. It was a sign of wealth and prestige because he would have had to pay the brides’ families money and cows to afford these wives. The first wives did not consider a new bride as added help around the homestead as I would have thought; rather, the wives each had their own little homestead on his property and basically hated to even accidentally encounter or see a new wife.

One morning in the clinic, a regal “first wife” walked in alone. She walked with her head held high and wore all the beads of her cultural tradition. Her cowhide cape was also adorned with lots of beads. While sitting waiting in the clinic on a bench, her husband’s young third wife with her baby also came into the clinic. Wife number three was dressed poorly. Her arrival was an embarrassing situation for both of them. The baby was very sick with whooping cough. While waiting their turn, during one long whoop, mucous got stuck in the baby’s throat. We all looked around; I had no suction equipment yet in my little clinic. The regal first wife immediately went to the baby, pinched its little nose, put her mouth on the baby’s and sucked hard. The mucous came up! I gave the baby an injection of penicillin, hoping to prevent any added pulmonary infection while the whooping cough ran its course.

lady 2

A well beaded Arsi woman

I was able to get the vaccination material, and invited another nurse in to Langano to help me. We vaccinated as many babies and children as we could against whooping cough. Unfortunately we weren’t able to give the second and third vaccinations before I left. Recently I asked a nurse who had since worked in the clinic at Langano (in about 2005) if whooping cough was still endemic at Langano, and she looked at me with a bit of a blank look as if to say “was it ever endemic?”, and said no. Praise the Lord.

Clinic Life

I had no disposable needles and syringes. Every evening I boiled up the syringes and needles I had used that day. The people had first had penicillin, the miracle cure, by injection. So they often asked for an injection. They believed that the more it hurt, the better it would cure their ailments!

I needed little bottles to dispense liquid medicines. There was a time when the SIM pharmacy’s little bottles became expensive. Too much money for these poor subsistence farmers, I thought. So when in Addis Ababa, Norm and I would go to the market looking for bottles. We eventually found 2 little boys who had scrounged in garbage cans and found little bottles, and they had a huge pile of these grubby little things. I was delighted. I bought a big boxful, and took them home where Borema’s dear sisters soaked, cleaned and boiled them for me.

These people practised counter-irritants. They often put their grass-cutting scythe in their little cooking fire in the middle of their hut. They would then use the tip of it to nick skin to provide a counter-irritant to the pain a person was feeling. One weekend afternoon, a man brought 2 little boys, about 2 and 3 years old, covered with tiny burns from this treatment. So I put the two little people into our tin washtub and soaked them well. Wish I had a photo! Then I daubed each sore with gentian violet. I wonder what happened to them.

boy smiling

Thank you!

One day a fine young teenaged boy from one of the nearby clans came during clinic hours. He had nasty ulcers, about three or four on his shin. The skin on the shin is very close to the bone, so I took it quite seriously. These ulcers also spread easily. I wanted him to come back to the clinic every day for treatment, but he had important “stuff” he had to travel to. So instead, I asked him to go and sit in the sun by our river, put his legs into the rushing water, and stay there, then return to me in an hour or two. He actually did it! When he came back, I put gobs of sulfa ointment on it, then wrapped it with lots of bandage and told him to leave it be for a few days. He did, and a week or so later he came and showed me the healed leg, and thanked me! What a nice young man. It is a lovely nursing memory.

There are so many more stories I could relate. They have left my life rich with memories. I thank God for His healing touch in that clinic. It was God’s work. I feel privileged to have been a part of it.

4 Responses

  1. Sherril Hood says:

    Am so enjoying reading this! Glad that you are writing it all down.

    • Betty Harrison says:

      Thank you Sherril. You and I worked in different parts of Africa in such different ministeries. We have just felt God prompting us to write our story, God’s work, in a blog.

  2. Pearl says:

    So many challenges but also some pretty good rewards.

    By the way, have you retained your skills in guessing weight and age? You could test this at the next class reunion. Age guessing not too difficult, given the circumstances; but weight guessing, a real diplomatic challenge.

  3. Betty Harrison says:

    Haha! Weight guessing would be difficult here and would take some diplomacy for sure.

    The Arsi were generally very fit because there was a lot of walking, and hard physical work in their lifestyle, so no one was really overweight. They also had no prepared foods like we do.

    Of course, nobody really saw what I wrote on their nursing card! Undercover work for sure!!

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