Dr. Livingston returns to Rwanda (5th edition)

Resident Academic Day: Humility and Obstetric Hemorrhage – Tuesday, January 22, 2019 (from Patty)

Yesterday we completed our final Academic Day with the Rwandan residents here in Kigali. It’s been a tremendous honour to spend time with this passionate group of people, who despite incredible odds, are persevering at delivering high quality anesthesia care. I’ve never met a more engaged, enthusiastic group during a teaching session, and our various approaches to teaching were heartily welcomed. A highlight is always Anesthesia Jeopardy, where trivia relevant to the week’s teaching is covered, complete with cheers and (many!) jeers from the opposing team. It’s an understatement to say that they residents “really” get into it.

This week’s topic was obstetric hemorrhage – an important topic to cover in a country where maternal mortality remains at 210/100,000 live births (compared to just 7 in Canada), and postpartum hemorrhage (PPH) remains a significant cause of morbidity and mortality. Throughout my time here, I’ve striven to understand some of the causes at the heart of the issue.

Following medical school, graduates work as General Practitioners (GPs) in rural hospitals; there, they are responsible for all manner of obstetric care, including Caesarian sections, amongst other routine medical and surgical care. Formally trained Obstetricians are not readily available (there is a severe shortage across the country) and when these GPs run into issues with PPH or massive obstetric hemorrhage, they are often left to deal on their own. Add to that the incredibly limited supply of blood available for transfusion and stock-outs of common medications used to treat hemorrhage, and you have a perfect storm of factors leading to unnecessary loss of life.

In Kigali and Butare, two larger cities where the majority of anesthesia residents in Rwanda train, doctors receive patients transferred in from these rural District Hospitals for further management. Often these patients are still actively bleeding and are in a critical state. Yesterday, one resident discussed at length how she had spent much of the day and night last week dealing with one massive obstetric hemorrhage case after the next – something that would be unheard of in Canada. The cases that the resident described represent some of the worst PPH a Western physician may see in their careers, and here we have residents trying to manage these patients in challenging, under-resourced settings with only limited backup.

The irony was not lost on me that our Academic Day was spent teaching residents about a topic they have far more experience in dealing with than I ever will (hopefully!). What’s amazing is that the group was so interested in hearing about “my own” experiences and what I would do in their situation – coming from a major tertiary care hospital in downtown Toronto, seemingly endless resources and assistance is available when I need it. That’s not, nor will it likely be the case here anytime soon. The more time I spend in Rwanda, the more I realize how important it is to tailor our teaching to the clinical context in which we are working. While there may be gold standard treatments and buckets of evidence demonstrating one approach over another, we must think creatively how that may apply in different environments. At the end of the day, I couldn’t help but think that it was truly I that received the bulk of the education.

Hiking Nyungwe Forest – Wednesday, January 23, 2019 (from Patty)

From our time in Kigali, to our visits throughout the countryside, and the countless small hamlets whose jostling for space earns Rwanda the title of Africa’s most densely populated country, it is clear that this place is old. Rwanda’s roots run deep. The people, the language, the culture have shaped and been shaped by this place for time beyond measure. As a Canadian of European descent, the sentiment is almost foreign. This sense of agelessness thrums strongest in Nyungwe.

Nyungwe National Forest covers nearly 1,000 square kilometres in Rwanda’s south west. It encompasses the largest expanse of montane rainforest in Africa and may well be Africa’s oldest rainforest. It is the source of both the Nile and Congo river and provides Rwanda with more than 80% of its freshwater. It is home to 13 primate species and 300 species of bird, many found no where else. Its importance can’t be overstated.

Needless the say, we were very excited to arrive and explore! We arrived late at night, driving a winding road through utter darkness and at times torrential rain. Feeling small in the face of such a primordial expanse was a feeling that would only grow over our time in Nyungwe. The next morning dawned bright and clear as we set out on a 10km hike. Amidst foggy vistas were heard the distant calls of one of the resident chimpanzee troupes. We had the chance to walk amongst waterfalls, towering ferns, and mahogany forests. The photos below hardly do the experience justice. The day finished with yet more torrential rain but it was no hardship as we were by then cosily settled into our guest lodge for the evening.

Our second day in Nyungwe saw us once again trekking into the wilderness but this time with a specific goal in mind – a sighting of the rare black and white colobus monkey. As was the theme of the entire weekend, we were not disappointed. We saw a troupe of nearly 40 of the monkeys within short measure! Amongst them also were at least two newborns, completely white unlike their mature black and white coloured counterparts.

Nyungwe is vast. Clearly our own experiences, incredible though they were, barely scratched the surface of this ancient place. Rwanda has made the preservation and protection of this place a high priority, that its woods and their inhabitants be protected from destructive incursion. Long may it stay that way.

People Moving – Wednesday, January 23, 2019 (from Patty)

When I first came to Rwanda in 2008, there were few private cars. Most roads were dirt, there were few sidewalks, no street lights and pedestrians had to navigate their way over mounds and around pits. Now much of Kigali is paved with sidewalks and good street lighting. Private car ownership is growing, with a resultant deterioration in air quality.

But Rwanda is always innovating. I read in the local newspaper today of plans to install a cable-car network in Kigali. The study designers argue this will move people efficiently and will reduce greenhouse emissions, noise pollution and collisions. Furthermore, the study recommends transportation corridors for pedestrians and cyclists. Wow! This visionary thinking is what is helping transform a tiny landlocked African country into a significant regional player. Could we please have efficient public transportation and corridors for pedestrians and cyclists in Halifax?

Meanwhile, we make do with other transport options.

Excuse me. Come again? – Thursday, January 24, 2019 (from Jon)

Being a geographically small country, Rwanda is linguistically (and culturally) very homogeneous. Day to day most Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda, but due to Rwanda’s French colonial past, most Rwandans grew up also speaking French. Elementary school instruction for most of the country’s independent history was in French. However, in 2009 Rwanda intentionally became a member of the commonwealth and the official academic language became English in schools and colleges. This means that most Rwandans are fluent in Kinyarwanda, and at a somewhat lesser extend English and French.

That being said, many of the difficulties in communication are most complicated than simple linguistic misunderstanding. Let me give you a few examples.

While staying at the Gisakura guest house, we decided to plan the rest of the weekend and upcoming week. I turned on my computer and noticed a Gisakura wifi network. I walked to the desk to ask for the password.
Somewhat timidly I ask, “Excuse me, can you tell me the wifi password?”
The desk clerk replies, “I don’t think the wifi is working very well right now…” looking down at the unplugged wifi router sitting on her desk.
I, not realizing this – in retrospect very obvious non-verbal que – persist. “Well, I see the wifi network on my computer. Can you give me the password to try?”
The clerk again looks at the very obviously unplugged router with a very long pause and a slightly confused look on her face… then reaches for a piece of paper and writes down the password – I imagine deciding that it is just easier to avoid conflict by quietly leaving with the router for the night rather than to argue with this somewhat slow muzungu. By the time I realized that the password supplied was not going to solve the problem, I also decide that just using a cellular hotspot was easier than arguing about the wifi.

The following morning, we enter the Nyungwe park office to be greeted by a friendly park ranger. “Good morning. You are welcome!” he says gesturing to a single chair. I look at the chair and the other three people with me and decide to stand. We all shake hands and exchange pleasantries. Now with all four of us standing near the desk he more emphatically says, “Please, have a seat” again gesturing to the single chair. I decide he really wants at least one of us to sit down so I sit. Proudly he explains “We have many activities in the park: monkey tracking, hikes, nature walks, the waterfall hike, the canopy trail.” Given that we came solidly unprepared and really open to any outdoor park related activity, we attempt to clarify our options.
Chris offers “I hear there are some packages for the trails. Is that true?”
“Yes, sir. You can enjoy many trails with the package. There is a package for short trails and a package for long trails.” A long pause clears the fresh mountain air.
Chris tries “which trails are included in the package.”
The ranger helpful says “the waterfall trail leaves from here at 9am.”
“So, the waterfall hike is included?”
“Sorry, no, sir. The waterfall hike is an additional fee.”
“Oh” Long pause while recalculating… “So, can we do the waterfall hike in the morning and then go on some other hikes in the afternoon?”
“Sorry, sorry. As you can see (gesturing to his watch reading 9am on the dot) you have missed the waterfall hike today”
Being that we had no firm plan, we were undaunted at this point. “Ok, that’s fine.”
“Thank you, sir.” Smiling
“Can we go monkey tracking?”
“Very good. We have 13 different species of monkeys here in the park!”
I break in at this point. “Great! How many Colobus monkeys are there?”
The guard looks up and appears to be counting in his head, responding after some time “37.”
“Ok, when can we see the colobus monkeys?”
“Tracking for colobus leaves 8, 10, (thoughtful pause) 1 and 3.”
“Great. Can we go at 10?”
“Yes, sir. May I please have your passports.”
We hand them over and begin to chat while he carefully writes down our information. Then we he is almost done registering us, he says “The ranger tells me the colobus monkeys in the trees now. They may be somehow difficult to see now. Maybe it’s better not to go now”
Now admitted becoming disappointed and somewhat comedically frustrated, “Ok, fine. Can we go on a nature hike?”
“No problem, sir. They leave from the Uwinka office. You can register for them there.”
“They can’t use the information you have here”
“No sir”
Now trying forcefully to remain upbeat, “Ok. Thank you for your help. Do they accept visa cards at the Uwinka office?”
“Yes, sir. Only visa.”
Upon arriving at the Uwinka office (13 windy mountain road kilometers away), the ranger there informs us that they only take cash.

This kind of miscommunication and misunderstanding is endemic in global health work either in or outside of the operating room. It plagues our ability to be effective and the fault does not clearly sit with one person or group of people. It can be at times comical or mildly frustrating, but at worst it can lead to conflict, destruction of long fostered relationships and even medical error resulting in harm. The most concerning aspect is that Canadian and (even more so) Rwandan culture tends toward being polite, overlooking perceived minor missteps. This means that miscommunication can go unnoticed until too late. The answer is likely that miscommunication decreases gradually as we understand each other’s culture, the words we use, our verbal ticks, and we strength our relationships between people. We can improve things but miscommunication will remain an ever present reality of working cross culturally.


Visit Dr. Livingston’s blog at < https://simcentreopening.blogspot.com/ > to see the original posts, including photos.