Sandra Lako: Sierra Leone seven years on

sandra_lakoSeven years ago today I flew into Lungi airport on an SN Brussels flight together with a few other people who were soon to be my colleagues and housemates. I remember it being hot and sticky while we were waiting to get on a helicopter to reach Freetown. I remember the drive along the beach road to get to Wilberforce to our team house. I remember falling in love with our amazing gazebo there. And getting settled in to a place that I would call home for the next four years!

My plan was to come to Sierra Leone to set up an outpatient clinic at the Mercy Ships Centre in Aberdeen. I planned to be here for a year. After being in Sierra Leone for only a week I soon realised the horrific child health statistics and the dire need for paediatric care. I knew what my mission was: a paediatric clinic. And that is what happened. I successfully set up a paediatric clinic for children 12 years old and under in Aberdeen and managed/ran clinics there for four years. Despite the many challenges, I loved it. I loved getting to know the children and families and being able to follow-up my patients. I enjoyed working with my Sierra Leonean colleagues. But after four and a half years it was time to move on.

I left Sierra Leone for a period of 10 months, in which I spent time in the US, Netherlands and Haiti (post-earthquake). I was keen to continue with healthcare in the developing world and looked into various options in Africa and Haiti, but Sierra Leone’s magnet pulled me back. I looked into various options and fortunately, Welbodi Partnership, my first choice post, was keen to have me on board and before I knew it I was on my way back to Salone.

And so since June 2010 I have been working at the only children’s hospital in the country. I initially worked as medical coordinator and team leader and have recently switched to the role of senior advisor. I am leaving a lot of the team management and logistics behind and hoping to be involved more clinically as well as continue with projects such as the development of the laboratory and radiology departments. There’s enough work to do, so I’m sure I’ll still have my hands full!

It has been an amazing seven years. I have met so many people. Many expats have come and gone and I’ve definitely made some life-long friends. I have become friends with a number of Sierra Leones and appreciate how they put up with me, my complaints, and my ignorance at times, and I am grateful for the advice they give me. The work has been challenging. It’s sometimes hard to see how things have changed when you’re in the middle of it. But having been here for seven years I can definitely say that although we have a long way to go, things have certainly improved. The Children’s hospital now has running water, a back-up generator, oxygen concentrators, an emergency room and triage system, etc.

I have no idea how long I’ll stay. It could be a year, it could be years. There’s still a lot to do here. Although the child health statistics have improved (we are now have the fourth highest child mortality rate in the world instead of the highest), they are nowhere near good enough. I feel like my mission is not yet over. So, I will press on and play my part. Thanks for journeying with me.

Sandra Lako is a doctor from the Netherlands who previously spent four and a half years in Sierra Leone setting up and managing a paediatric outpatient clinic with an organisation called Mercy Ships. After a year at home, she returned to Sierra Leone to volunteer as medical coordinator with the Welbodi Partnership, a UK based charity supporting the only government-run children’s hospital in a country where one in five children do not reach the age of 5.