UW Health reaches out to Ethiopian hospital

March 5, 2013

A frilly pink dress made its way from Bay View, near Milwaukee, to Addis Ababa just in time for a very sick Ethiopian toddler, dressed as a fairy princess, to celebrate Christmas in the hospital.

The story of the pink princess dress is one about the University of Wisconsin’s reach across the state, and around the globe.

Photo: UW nurse with Ethiopian child

UW Health nurse Mary Jean Erschen helped deliver medical equipment, toys and gifts to Black Lion Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Erschen was traveling to teach a class in pediatric emergency care to the hospital’s nurses.

The dress arrived at the Addis Ababa University’s Black Lion Hospital on Jan. 7, Christmas Day on the Ethiopian calendar. It traveled in the over-stuffed luggage of UW nurses Mary Jean Erschen and Dianna Bower, who flew into Ethiopia with nearly as much gear as Santa Claus. Erschen, the pediatric emergency care coordinator, and Bower, a care team leader, both in the Emergency Department at University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, were making their annual trip to the hospital, and came loaded with luggage full of medical equipment, scrubs, toys and gifts.

The trip has become a familiar journey for many UW Hospital staff members, since the hospitals were “twinned” in 2009 under a grant from the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC/Ethiopia), which is administered by the American International Health Alliance. The effort is led by UW vascular surgeon Girma Tefera.

Erschen was traveling to teach a class in pediatric emergency care to the hospital’s nurses. But she knew from past visits how much the children and their parents also need clothing.  Bower taught in adult emergency care and brought stethoscopes, scrubs and other supplies for the nurses there. 

Her new photos show a tiny girl hooked up to a cardiac monitor which, like all the emergency department’s monitors, was donated from UW Hospital. She doesn’t remember the girl’s exact diagnosis, but says that Black Lion Hospital has many children with congestive heart failure; their enlarged hearts are the result of untreated infections such as strep throat and rheumatic fever.

Another oxygen dependent heart-failure patient who received clothing was a smiling boy named Metatop, who has lived in the emergency department for two years after being abandoned by his family.

“The nurses have adopted him,’’ she says. “It’s the only place in the hospital with oxygen, so he has to stay there. The people of Ethiopia have such great big hearts. They have almost nothing, but they would give anything to you if they thought you needed it.”

While the photos of the hospital facilities look primitive to American eyes, Erschen says she’s impressed by the progress made on quality improvement projects since her first visit. The challenges are large. For example, the emergency department has no running water for hand-washing but has begun using alcohol gel.

“The people of Ethiopia have such great big hearts. They have almost nothing, but they would give anything to you if they thought you needed it.”

Mary Jean Erschen

“That’s the beauty of it — one year you teach them a concept, and the next year you come back and they are doing it,’’ she says.

Back in Madison, Erschen and Bower are two of the many UW Hospital emergency staff who teach kids as part of “Ready Camp.”  Every summer, between 50 and 80 middle- and high-school students come to campus to learn emergency response and trauma techniques and practice on the manikins in the UW simulation center. They also tour the Med Flight hangar and emergency department, and learn decontamination procedures. Firefighters, EMTs and other emergency crews bring their big rigs to show the students and introduce them to their careers.

Last summer, Erschen showed her Ready Camp students photos of the kids at Black Lion Hospital. They were touched, and wanted to help. So in the fall, Kim Schubring, program director at the Bay View Community Center, said her Ready Club had collected a mountain of clothes.

“I drove down to Milwaukee and filled my entire Honda Civic,” Erschen says. The clothes are a tiny part of the UW donations. Nurses in the emergency department are currently conducting a “scrub drive” led by ED Care Team Leader Sue Wolfe, who has also traveled to Ethiopia to outfit the Black Lion nurses. And over the past two years, the UW has donated more than $85,000 worth of medical equipment ranging from ultrasound machines to surgical supplies. Madison College has also contributed generously.

A frilly pink dress may not cure a sick child, but as part of a much bigger Wisconsin friendship, it makes a difference.

For more on Ready Camp see the website. More about the Black Lion twinning project can be found here. A blog by nurse Peter Rankin on some of his first visits to Black Lion Hospital is posted on the UW Health website.

—Susan Lampert Smith