While some of us are starting the new year filled with good intentions – like eating less sweets and hitting the gym more often – a couple will kick off 2012 with a medical mission to Sierra Leone to provide health care to women in a country that has five ob-gyns to serve its 5.5 million people.
Janine and Michael Karoly, both 58, will start the almost two-day journey on Jan. 5 that will take them to the West African country where the life expectancy is about 40 and there is a one-in-eight chance of death with each pregnancy.
"My goal is to help the most people in the shortest amount of time," said Michael, a local ob-gyn, of his expected seven or eight days of operating is what he described as "a step above a MASH unit."
Michael, who has practices in Hazlet and Little Silver, is no stranger to participating in what he calls "surgical strikes." He has visited the Philippines three times as part of a group of doctors who donated their time and services to provide surgical care for patients who are quite unlike those he treats in Monmouth County.
But unlike those earlier trips, Michael said he committed to the African mission, which required over $1,000 in vaccinations and will house them in lock-down every night, because it has a goal that's larger than just performing a few days of procedures and then pulling up stakes and returning home.
The Karolys, who have been married for 36 years, were invited to join the Sierra Leone mission by Michael's colleague, Dr. Nina Seigelstein of Little Silver. She had been so moved by the lack of women's health care she witnessed during two surgical missions to the country that she is spearheading an effort to build a 32-bed maternity clinic as part of an existing hospital in Makeni, a remote town in the northern part of the country.
"I don't want to just come and leave," said Michael. "Nina is trying to create something that's sustainable."
The Great Observer
Seigelstein encouraged Janine to join the mission to perform community outreach, as she is a "great observer."
"I don't get to know what their stories are," Seigelstein said of the patients she operates on. "I might know that a woman has a prolapsed uterus, but not that she has to journey with 20 pounds of fish on her head each day."
She said Janine will be able to speak with the women and their families and learn their stories. She will also be crucial is encouraging families to seek medical care from the team and stress the importance of healthcare for every member of the family -- including women -- a not-so-popular notion in that country.
Janine will also post updates on Patch in the Local Voices section to share her observations and experiences while in Sierra Leone.
Michael said that despite the physically and emotionally exhausting nature of the trip, he finds the work satisfying. "Do I really make a difference here?" he asked of his Monmouth County practices, where he said if he can't provide care for a patient, "there are 10 other doctors in the area who could."
"I think I need to know that I made a difference," he explained.
This is the first in a series of articles and blog posts documenting the Karolys’ trip to Sierra Leone and the effort to bring a maternity ward to its northern region that is home to 1.7 million people and no ob-gyns.
To make a donation to help One World Women's Health build a maternity ward in Sierra Leone, click here.