Mission to Uganda: Local doctor volunteers at refugee camps

The patient, a man in his upper 50s who had diabetes, was one of many who came that day to the medical tent. It fell to Dr. Jim Tiede, an internist from Spicer, to see the patient. The man had run out of medication and his blood sugar was way out...

The patient, a man in his upper 50s who had diabetes, was one of many who came that day to the medical tent.

It fell to Dr. Jim Tiede, an internist from Spicer, to see the patient.

The man had run out of medication and his blood sugar was way out of range, Tiede recalled. "He needed insulin."

But in all of Uganda, there was only one doctor who dealt with insulin-dependent diabetes -- and he only saw patients on Tuesdays.

It was a bleak moment for Tiede, who'd come to Uganda to help provide medical care in the country's refugee camps.


"I had no way to treat this guy," he said.

Weighed in the balance, though, were the dozens of patients he and the medical team were able to successfully treat for everything from strep throat to leprosy.

"The people were the best part of all. They were just fantastic," Tiede said. "They were a very spirited people and very grateful."

Tiede recently returned from spending almost a month in Uganda with Medical Teams International, a faith-based nondenominational organization that works globally to respond to disasters and support public health initiatives in developing nations.

Uganda is one of 32 countries in which Medical Teams International has a presence (the agency currently has teams in earthquake-stricken China, in Myanmar and in New Orleans).

From Kampala, the capital, it's a six-hour trip over bumpy roads to Lira, the town in the north that houses the regional office of Medical Teams International.

Uganda has been relatively peaceful in recent years. But for two decades, the country was wracked by rebel fighting. More than one million people were displaced. Untold numbers of children were abducted by rebel soldiers and forced to commit atrocities.

Refugees are gradually being resettled and villages are being rebuilt. Several thousand people still live in refugee camps, however, where a main source of medical care is from traveling units of Medical Teams International.


Each day, Tiede and a handful of other volunteer doctors and nurses would travel by van into the back country. They'd be accompanied by a Ugandan team of medical officers -- the equivalent of a U.S. mid-level health practitioner such as a physician assistant -- and midwives, nursing assistants, intravenous technicians, translators and a chaplain.

"There would be lines of people waiting," Tiede said.

A row of tents would be set up, he explained. "The patient would come in and we'd see the patient right there."

Patients who needed medication would be sent to the team's mobile pharmacy, which operated out of a van.

It was a far cry from how Tiede, a retired gastroenterologist at Affiliated Community Medical Centers in Willmar, has been used to practicing medicine.

Many of the diseases he encountered among his Ugandan patients were almost unknown in the American Midwest -- malaria, parasitic infections such as yaws and schistosomiasis, and even a case of leprosy.

Tiede said he brushed up on tropical medicine ahead of time. "I did my best. I had to study," he said.

He's been to Africa before, but this was the first time he traveled as part of a medical mission.


"I've always felt I should do something like this," he said.

He became involved in Medical Teams International through a medical school classmate and longtime friend who practices family medicine in Seattle.

The organization, based in Portland, Ore., brings together donors, volunteers and local groups to address health care where it's needed the most -- in disaster areas and in regions of the world stricken by conflict or poverty.

Since 1986, Medical Teams International has shipped $1 billion in humanitarian aid. More than 2,500 people volunteer each year, both overseas and in the United States.

While he was in Uganda, a shipment of $50,000 worth of new prescription drugs arrived, Tiede said. "That goes a long ways," he said.

Children at Vinje Lutheran Church in Willmar, where Tiede and his wife, Marilynn, are members, also raised $4,800 that Tiede brought to Uganda in cash to spend on medical supplies.

As little as $50 can help pay the cost of transporting a sick or injured child from a refugee camp in northern Uganda to a hospital, he said.

With the help of a $350,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Medical Teams International also is working to rebuild the public health infrastructure with projects such as a youth center, a maternal clinic and a clean water supply.


"Health care is better and most of these people are getting their towns back," Tiede said.

He'd like to return to Uganda some day.

It was an experience that was life-changing, he said.

"They talk about 're-entry' when you come back, and it's true," he said. "It changes you... You see what we complain about and how we live our lives. We live a completely different life than 99 percent of the world. The little things that other people are so grateful for -- it's just amazing."

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