Apr 24 2012
By Catherine Burger, MD
Vanderbilt University: Department of Emergency Medicine
We are taught during medical training to be very cautious and to only proceed with decisions and procedures when we are well prepared. Putting in a breathing tube, for example, when a patient is having difficulty breathing or has lost consciousness, is a procedure that can be done with just a few simple pieces of equipment. But in an attempt to ensure success, we bring in advanced tools for back up, cameras to get a better look down the throat, smaller tubes in case the size we have chosen doesn’t fit. Once we are prepared for anything we are ready. But in many places around the world, including Georgetown Public Hospital in Guyana, those backups are simply not available.
In so many ways the Guyanese healthcare providers have used their limited resources not as an excuse to give up but as an education in how to efficiently and effectively work with what you have. Although the Accident and Emergency Department has less than 20 beds and staffs only a handful of nurses and doctors they are able to see over 70,000 patients a year, what would be a sizable number for any large tertiary care hospital in the United States. Hallways are lined with chairs for patients who are healthy enough to sit up and often patients walk themselves to the lab to have blood work done or x ray for their imaging. While working in the A&E one day I saw a 21 day old baby with a large infected abscess on his arm. The mother brought the child to my chair where I was doing initial evaluations, after seeing the infection we set the baby on a nearby stretcher, cleaned the area and sprayed it with an anesthetic, used a scalpel blade to drain the infection and wrapped the arm back up. We gave the infant some antibiotics and had them go back out into the waiting room until there was a bed available in the Nursery. Neither the staff working with me, nor the mother, was bothered by our inability to get blood cultures, the lack of a crib or incision and drainage kit, or the fact that they had to wait outside the A&E for a bed. Everyone was just glad this was a child we could clearly help, as opposed to the unfortunately numerous cases where the patients are too sick to turn around.
At times I would find myself frustrated by the lack of certain simple but effective drugs, easily available CT scanners or even ventilators. But then a coworker would teach me about how they have found older, cheaper drugs that works, they use x rays instead of CTs, and they ventilate the patients by hand. It’s not ideal but for the most part it works. It’s refreshing to watch the innovative ways resources are used and how nothing is wasted. Even in the sometimes harsh environment of Guyana the people have remained quickly adaptable to their changing world, generous, and extremely thankful, it is a fantastic privilege to work with them.