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Afghanistan: facing malnutrition in Helmand Province

07 Jan 2016

Sam Templeman is an Australian paediatric nurse. He was in Helmand province, in the south of Afghanistan, from December 2014 to September 2015. In the provincial capital city, Lashkar Gah, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) supports the Ministry of Public Health Boost Hospital. Templeman shares some intimate moments of this emotional assignment.

What did your assignment involve?

My mission was to supervise the general paediatric ward and inpatient therapeutic feeding centre (malnutrition ward in other words), working alongside an Afghan Head of Department.

The job involved a mix of direct hands-on care, bedside teaching, classroom teaching, as well as more managerial tasks such as rostering, supply/stock management, HR etc. I enjoyed being in a position with that sort of variety. 

What did your assignment with Médecins Sans Frontières focus on?

The focus of my assignment was to improve the quality of care our patients are receiving. We achieved it through staff training and supervision, renovation works, ensuring that we have the right resources/equipment and also updating policies/procedures as necessary.

Boost Hospital is quite a large one and a large project by Médecins Sans Frontières standards. Our international nurses and doctors support national staff in running the different departments – everything from surgery to intensive care and malnutrition wards. Médecins Sans Frontières employs almost 700 national staff there.

In the general paediatric ward and inpatient therapeutic feeding centre we have all female nurses and health assistants. I really appreciated working with our Afghan staff. I was always aware that it was quite a rare privilege to be able to work alongside and learn also from Afghan women.

I was nervous at first, worried about saying or doing the wrong thing because we have different cultures, traditions... But I was quickly struck by how reactive they were. There was a nurse in the general paediatric ward who loves her cricket. After the world cup I was told that because Australia won, I had to buy kebabs for everyone working that day. My argument that since my country won, they should buy a kebab for me, was not well received!

What were your main medical and humanitarian challenges?

Where do I start? There is very little free health care in Helmand province. Most people visit private clinics or pharmacies where they pay for treatment.

The health care professionals often lack training and the quality of publicly available medicines is also dubious. Often people spend what little money they have on poor quality services. We see the knock-on effects of the lack of primary health care in the hospital with many people presenting with ailments that do not need hospitalisation.

The malnutrition ward brings many of the province’s issues into focus. Malnutrition is not caused simply through a lack of food. Anyone’s who’s been sick before can appreciate that you often lose your appetite and a bit of weight at the same time. But for a child in this context, without access to good primary health care, good nutrition or adequate sanitation, this puts him at an increased risk of getting sick again. As this cycle repeats itself, a child ends up losing more and more weight until he is severely malnourished.

Another issue was the easy availability of antibiotics, often either inappropriately prescribed or bought without a prescription, thus fuelling antibiotic resistance, and as these antibiotics become less and less effective, health outcomes will only get worse.

Do you particularly remember some patients’ stories?

I remember a mother in the malnutrition ward whose son had kwashiorkor. This is the type of malnutrition where a child’s body becomes swollen. These children tend to have a higher risk of dying in hospital. We started him on the standard treatment and hoped to see the child improve and the swelling reduce. But there’s so much we still don’t know about malnutrition, so much research yet to be done. 

We went through other possible diagnoses, checked his urine and blood and did a chest x-ray to look for signs of TB. But nothing seemed to fit and we couldn’t work out why he wouldn’t respond. But that’s not why I remember him. I remember him because of his mother. She was young like so many were and she cried for him. She cried and cried and didn’t stop because she was so worried about him. No one knew what to do. We were all so unused to seeing so much emotion; we didn’t know what to do for her. 

Some of the other mothers tried to comfort her. Some of our staff tried to soothe her. In the first few days I sat with her and explained what was happening and that we expected him to improve after a few days of treatment. After a few days I had to tell her some children take longer to respond than others. Then that we were running some tests to look for other causes. And finally I didn’t know what to tell her. After about two weeks I was told she’d left and taken him to Pakistan hoping for better treatment. I’m not sure he survived the trip. 

What was the most difficult day for you?

We would often hear fighting between armed groups and government forces. On this day, word spread that there had been an explosion not far from the hospital. One of the nurses got a phone call from her sister telling her their house had been destroyed. Thankfully no one was hurt. She asked me if she could leave work early to see the damage and salvage what she could. 

She’s one of the tougher nurses and usually gets on with work without complaint. Most people would be in tears after seeing their house destroyed but she managed to keep them at bay when she came back. Later that afternoon one of her patients died. Saleha* didn’t fall apart. At the end of the shift she put on her burka, took her bag and went back to where her house used to stand. On her next shift, she showed up to work and worked as hard as she always did. 

Is there any other anecdote you want to share?

There are many, but one comes first. The international staff were not allowed out due to the tight security rules. We used to drive from our house through the bazaar to and from hospital and see people go about their business. We all longed to be able to get out and walk around, sit, and have a tea. I remember near the end of my assignment, one of the nurses asked if I’d ever been to the bazaar. I saw her colleagues shaking her head and making a gesture – something like ‘only A to B’ and then they started laughing. 

Nurse - ‘Really? You’ve never been anywhere except the hospital or your compound? In nine months?’

Sam - ‘Once I went to a meeting,' I replied. 'I’m not allowed out'

The nurse just couldn’t stop laughing. I sat there getting laughed at by this 19-year-old nurse for not being allowed out. I didn't like it, but my international colleagues seemed to enjoy the story quite a lot!

* Name has been changed.