Wes Strickland is an American businessman and philanthropist living and working in Canada. In this interview he tells me about his humanaitarian work in Sierra Leone (West Africa) and the people working with him.
Gibril Koroma: Who is Wes Strickland? Please introduce yourself to our readers.
Wes Strickland: I was born in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1955 and graduated from Elon College in 1977 with a degree in chemistry. I worked in cancer research; I have worked as an analytical chemist on a marine biology research vessel; I have worked as a professional underwater photographer and now as a businessman in Nanaimo, British Colombia, Canada.
GK: How did you meet Professor Aiah Gbakima?
WS: I met Professor Aiah Gbakima at Elon College as school mates, he in the biology department and I in the chemistry department. Aiah and I spent a lot of time together studying and this is when I learned what kind of man Aiah Gbakima is. When Aiah and I would take a break from studying he would speak of Sierra Leone. How he came from a small village in the Gorama Chiefdom in Kono. How much he loved his people and country and what he was going to do with his education when he finished. For Aiah, the most important thing in his life was to return home educated and to use that education to help his people. All of these things he has accomplished. You can see how easy it would be to be impressed with such a person and Aiah and I kept in touch through the years.
GK:Tell us about the Village Medical Project for Sierra Leone.
WS: Aiah returned home as he said he would, with degrees in parasitic diseases and molecular biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and started his research into River Blindness (Onchocerciasis). He was forced to leave Sierra Leone at the height of the war but he never forgot about his home and returned at his earliest opportunity. This is when I received a call for help from Aiah in 2006 for the University of Sierra Leone which he had just accepted a position at. I helped him re-computerize the administration department and it was during this trip to Sierra Leone that the Village Medical Project for Sierra Leone came to be.
We discussed ways of improving the health conditions in Sierra Leone and decided to concentrate our efforts in the small villages. The most logical place to start was the Gorama Chiefdom and so I returned to Canada and Aiah went to the villages there. I put together a paper outlining our objectives and sent it to another dear friend in Chicago, Dr. Joseph Mitton. From there a medical team was put together, I fund raised to purchase the necessary medical supplies and we landed at Lungi ready for work October 2008. Our base camp is located some 250 miles east of Freetown in the village of Jaiama Nimikoro.
The villagers we are treating are located another hour and a half drive through the bush. We have organized our treatment of each village by household. Each hose has been assigned a house number and we know who lives in each. It is important to keep family units together for many reasons. Of course any emergencies are taken as a priority. We are there to give full free medical treatment to everyone, but our target groups are pregnant women, infants and those five and under, the objective being, a substantial reduction in both the infant and under five mortality rates. Our full team consists of not only Professor Gbakima and ourselves but local medical personal. It is our objective to accomplish our mission working with the people of Sierra Leone, instead of just frankly, being a bunch of foreigners coming in. The use of this approach worked extremely well, not only in creating bonds but trust between the villagers and our team.
Our work in Sierra Leone also consisted of general healthcare education, i.e. public health teaching, midwife interviews and teaching as well as working on designing and implementing community health workers. Zeroing in on life style changes within each village needed to help keep them healthier between our visits. We insure that we are in country long enough not just to do the things mentioned above but also to do follow ups in each village to ensure there are no negative reactions to our treatments and to answer any questions that we know will come up. All of this insures we are giving the best medical care as we can possibly do under the present working conditions.
GK: What are the challenges, if any, this project has faced so far?
WS: The challenges of putting in place such a project have been many. Bringing in drugs and medical supplies from three countries located on two continents along with medical personnel has at times been a logistical nightmare. Then it is all the government paperwork and transportation from Lugi to Freetown. We will start purchasing our drugs from Imeres Pharmaceuticals in Freetown to meet the needs of future trips. This way we eliminate paperwork and transportation from Lungi of the majority of our supplies. Transportation in the bush as your readers know presents its own challenges, especially if our timing is off with the end of the rainy season. Aiah, through his tireless work in preparation of our arrivals has been one of the major components in making the Village medical Project successful.
Another challenge we have had is our desire to treat the entire population of the Gorama Chiefdom consisting of over 2,300 people. We have concluded that we will need two full medical teams to do this within our time constraints. We are now using the Hill Valley Inn Freetown and the Kono Hotel outside the city of Koidu to meet our housing needs. I am putting together a new team from the Vancouver Island Health Authority’s ER department to mix up with our team from Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Dr Lt. Col Sahr has always been very gracious in adding military doctors as well as medical lab technicians to make this project successful. We were able to treat 1,646 villagers this past November and with two teams we will be able to take care of the entire Chiefdom.
GK: What have been your successes?
WS: Our successes are evaluated from a medical stand point. First of all we keep full electronic medical records on all of our patients. This information is shared with the CMO for Sierra Leone, the Minister of Health, the WHO and the UN’s CMO in Sierra Leone. We test and treat for malaria, anemia and a host of ailments and parasitic infections as well as screening for HIV, TB. Injuries which would normally be non life threatening in the west are in the bush. Many lives have been saved as a result of the work of the VMPSL. But one of the best gauges is the rise in food production and the reduction of absenteeism in the schools as a result of better overall health. The smiles of the children will always bring us back. These folks over the last three years are not only our patients but our friends. It’s a very special relationship that has developed, one of mutual trust and respect.
Family medical treatment in rural Sierra Leone.
GK: What are your plans for the future with regards to this project?
WS: Our plans for the future are for two trips per year, each consisting of two full medical teams. We have been able to reduce the under-five mortality rate by 78% and with two trips we will not only continue to improve the health of these communities further but show others just what can be accomplished in remote villages. There are many things we have learned along the way which can be shared with other medical NGO’s.
I want you to understand as well that all members of our medical team cover all their own expenses to and from Sierra Leone and while in country. The Village Medical Project for Sierra Leone Society is a registered non-profit charitable society with the Government of Canada. If you feel you would like to help us please visit our website; www.vmpsl.org