St. Joseph Medical Center shines in Tanzania

The folks at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson quickly learned that in Tanzania, Africa, wellness goes beyond simply providing health care.

After all, what good is it to teach people to wash their hands if the water they wash with is contaminated or if they have no water at all? It’s one thing to treat respiratory illnesses; it’s another to realize that illness stems from smoke inhalation because the villagers cook over open fires inside poorly ventilated huts.

“Our primary focus is health care, but after a year it became clear we needed a broader definition of health, and we got into these issues of wellness,” said John K. Tolmie, president and CEO of St. Joseph Medical Center. “We began defining health as the village as opposed to the provision of health care.”

On Oct. 3, Dr. Willibrod P. Slaa, a member of parliament for Karatu, where St. Joseph operates the Village Wellness Project, came to visit St. Joseph. Cardinal William H. Keeler escorted Dr. Slaa and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Tolmie, and Mr. Tolmie’s parents on a private tour of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and had them to lunch at his residence.

Dr. Slaa praised the bonds that have formed between the United States and Tanzania as a result of the Village Wellness Project, noting that without such bonds they would be separated by skin color, and instead “we feel like we belong to the same father and the same mother.”

“The outcome of what we’ve been doing has really transformed the life of the people,” Dr. Slaa said.

St. Joseph’s involvement in Tanzania began in 2001, when Mr. Tolmie visited the Faraja Primary School for Children with Physical Disabilities with his parents, who were active in support of the school.

At the same time, Mr. Tolmie said, St. Joseph had been looking at potential international ministries, and once they saw the need in Tanzania, “We felt it was the right place for St. Joseph Medical Center to be,” he said.

Life expectancy in Tanzania is 50 years – and falling. One of out of every seven children will die before 5, and the infant mortality rate is 104 per 1,000 and rising. The first year was spent planning, working with organizations, churches and the medical staff of Karatu Hospital.

St. Joseph screens about 2,000 people every three months in schools and villages, determining the problems – from water-borne disease and malnutrition to diseases such as HIV/AIDS, anemia and malaria – in order to devise solutions.

Clean water is the first priority; there are no rivers or surface water in Karatu, and villagers walk for miles to collect contaminated water in dirty containers.
“Water means so much; it means life to them,” Dr. Slaa said.

The Village Wellness team taught villagers to use slow sand filters to leach the contaminants out of water. The filter vessels are cheap to make and small enough to be installed near homes; the program also provided funds for sand filters and clean collection containers for Karatu Hospital.

The project also taught villagers how to build a pit latrine to keep flies out, reducing the spread of disease.

Respiratory infections are reduced by using a “mama stove,” which encloses the cooking fire and has a burner on the top. The stove is vented to the outside, not only reducing disease but the need for scarce firewood.

Here, St. Joseph specializes in providing top-flight medical care, but in Tanzania it’s beloved for providing heifers – and goats, chickens and beehives.

“We’ve been able to reach more than 500 families,” Mr. Tolmie said. The program doesn’t just provide a cow but teaches animal husbandry.

“The family is given a cow, and then they have to give a calf to the next family,” Dr. Slaa explained, adding that 120 cows have been provided. “That means so much for the children who otherwise would be suffering from malnutrition.”

The Village Wellness Project also operates a small loan program for women; so far 500 women and 140 youths have taken loans to allow them to become self-sufficient.

“Eighty percent of the first group of women has repaid the money they borrowed,” Mr. Tolmie noted.

Of course St. Joseph also provides health care; teams of clinicians and administrators visit Tanzania regularly. And the hospital is providing scholarships for villagers to become nurses or doctors.

The Village Wellness Project is part of and has made grants to WAMADUKA, an abbreviation for wanawake na mapambano dhidi ya ukimwi or women fight against HIV/AIDS in Karatu. An estimated 12 percent of Tanzanians have HIV/AIDS.
WAMADUKA, which includes experts from the Catholic Diocese of Mbulu and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Northern Diocese, is a grassroots, women-led program that tries to reach remote villages not served by government programs.

In the past six years, 70,000 villagers have benefited from St. Joseph Medical Center’s presence, whether it’s with a cow that provides much-needed milk, clean water or a loan to buy cobbler’s tools.

Said Dr. Slaa, “St. Joseph’s is not kilometers away – it’s close; it’s in them.”

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.