Volume 43 | Number 1 | Fall 2012

Photos courtesy of Be the Change

From Meridian to Uganda

Fall 2012 Issue | By Chris Gabettas


When members of a Treasure Valley medical team traveled to the Nsumba Orphanage in Uganda, East Africa last summer, a child handed them a note.

"He said he couldn't hear his teacher in class and could we help him," recalled team member Judy Thorne, the HIV and viral hepatitis educator at the Idaho State University-Meridian Health Science Center.

In July, the group led by Thorne and Boise physician Margaret Doucette returned to the orphanage—this time with an ISU-Meridian audiology team to help screen children for hearing problems.

Also making the two-week trip was ISU-Meridian Academic Dean Bessie Katsilometes, who met with representatives of Uganda's largest health science university to discuss establishing an educational partnership with ISU.

The team is part of Be the Change Africa, a Boise-based organization that has spent the past two years helping the Nsumba Orphanage build sustainable programs in health care and clean water.

Judy Thorne, Bessie Katsilometes, Gabriel Bargen and Nicole Butler with children from the Nsumba orphanage.


The Nsumba Orphanage is located on Lake Victoria about 20 miles outside of Kampala, Uganda's capital city. Owned by the Kampala Catholic Diocese, the orphanage serves 500 children up to age 18. Most of the children have lost parents to AIDS or were found abandoned on the streets of Kampala.

The children receive food, clothing, and shelter and attend elementary and high school on orphanage grounds, but life isn't easy by American standards. There is no electricity, and the orphanage was without potable water until February 2012 when Be the Change installed a solar water pump system.


Each day, the team members would board two vans outside their hotel in Kampala to begin the hour-long drive to the orphanage. The journey would take them along dirt roads and through small villages where sheep and cattle grazed. The scenery could pass for rural Idaho if not for the banana trees and 8-foot high termite hills.

A priority was to complete medical histories of Nsumba's children and students—which Be the Change began last summer. The profiles include exposure to infectious diseases, vaccinations, general growth and development history, vision and oral health.

Because so many of the children have lost parents to AIDS, Thorne says it's important to test them for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The Uganda AIDS Commission estimates 150,000 of the country's children under age 15 are infected with HIV, typically transferred from mother to child at birth.

Working with the Uganda AIDS support network called TASO and the Ugandan Ministry of Health, Thorne tested 167 children. All were HIV-free—great news to teens orphaned by AIDS, who'd grown up fearing their HIV status.

She recounted the story of two students so ecstatic about their negative test, "they were practically doing cartwheels across the orphanage grounds, showing everyone their certificates and hugging everyone."

Children who test positive are referred to Ugandan health agencies for care and treatment, said Thorne. "Uganda, to its credit, has a system in place. It's just that many orphanages are off the beaten track and don't know how to access resources available to them. We can serve as the conduit to those resources," she said.


When ISU-Meridian assistant professor and audiologist Gabriel Bargen first set eyes on the orphanage, she recalls feeling overwhelmed. "There were so many children," she said.

But she and audiology doctoral student Nicole Butler got to work, screening 150 children in five days. They found that many of the hearing issues were caused by ear wax—which can act like an earplug—and explains why children had trouble hearing their teachers in class.

Bargen and Butler used special tools to remove the wax and flushed the ear with water. However, other cases were more challenging. At least seven children had severe ear infections that could've led to permanent hearing loss if left untreated, said Bargen.

"In the United States, children have colds and ear infections all of the time. They go to the doctor for treatment, but in Uganda it was as if the children had learned to live with the pain," said Bargen.

She tells the story of a toddler named Charles—quiet and lethargic when she detected his ear infection. Several days later and after a round of antibiotics, he was laughing and playing with his friends like a typical 2-year-old.


The World Health Organization reports that malaria is the leading cause of death in African children under age 5 and accounts for up to 40 percent of outpatient visits to health facilities and clinics.

To prevent bites from malaria-infected mosquitoes, the Treasure Valley team purchased 200 nets from a nearby village—injecting money into the local economy—and hung them in orphanage dormitories.


ISU-Meridian Dean Bessie Katsilometes toured the prestigious Makerere University School of Public Health in Kampala and met with its dean. The two institutions and Be the Change officials are exploring a partnership that would enable students at ISU and Makerere to study global health issues while serving the Nsumba Orphanage. Areas would likely include HIV and malaria diagnosis, treatment and prevention as well as programs to bolster the health-science education of orphanage children.

Pointing to the increased interest in global health among university students, Katsilometes said ISU may eventually be able to offer clinical rotations in Uganda for graduate-level public health students.


You'd expect a visit to the Nsumba Orphanage to enlighten professionally. But members of the ISU delegation say the experience has touched them in a personal way.

Thorne is grateful for the richness the children have brought to her life.

Bargen has learned a medical mission is more than simply providing medical care. Sometimes, it means dropping what you're doing and playing a game of volleyball with kids.

As for Katsilometes?

"I'll always remember the joy of 500 children living in the moment— despite poverty and hardship. It was humbling," she said.