Connecting hearts abroad – first person account

Eli Lilly and Company’s Amy Sousa provides a first-person account of her recent volunteering experience in South Africa, where she conducted diabetes health screenings and gave support to patients.

We were in South Africa, and I’m not sure how far we walked the last day … but it was far.

As our group of volunteer employees from Eli Lilly and Company looked for more people willing to have their blood sugar tested, we were no longer shocked by the homes made from irregular cuts of corrugated metal or the thin roofs held down by stones. We had already learned to jump over the sewage streams in the streets that were criss-crossed with illegally connected electrical wires.

But to be honest, many of us were still surprised at the willingness of residents to talk to us about the issues they faced, including the poor health that they or their family members experienced. But when we asked if we could test their blood sugar, many abruptly said, “No.”

Living in Zandspruit, a shanty town of 70,000 people outside of Johannesburg, residents have many other things to worry about besides a growing epidemic of diabetes: violent crime, unemployment, and lack of nutritious food and access to basic healthcare.

“…many of us were still surprised at the willingness of residents to talk to us about the issues they faced…”

However, diabetes is quickly growing as a major threat – one that will only get worse as the population ages and becomes more urban.1 South Africa, in particular, has the second highest number of people living with diabetes in the African region at more than 1.9 million.1

Patients, even when diagnosed, often face significant barriers to get the care they need; whether it’s the availability of a local clinic, extensive waiting times, or lack of available medicines. These patients often lack basic understanding of their chronic disease, possible complications, and need for life-long lifestyle changes and treatment.

Knowing this, we continued our assigned work despite the initial apprehension we faced. And fortunately, some did say, “Yes.” I remember one young woman in particular who, as she stepped on a scale to measure her weight, handed me her baby. It was a simple action, nothing particularly extraordinary, but it provided a moment of perfect clarity for me.

This is why we are here.

Last year, Lilly launched the Lilly NCD Partnership with our partner, Project HOPE, in South Africa to address the growing burden of non-communicable diseases, including diabetes around the world. It’s here – and in communities like those in Brazil, India, and Mexico – that the partnership hopes to find an innovative and cost-effective model for improving the health of patients through better diagnosis, treatment, and long-term management of chronic diseases. Ultimately, we hope these evidence-based models can be replicated and scaled up by governments around the world.

“These patients often lack basic understanding of their chronic disease, possible complications, and need for life-long lifestyle changes and treatment.”

Ours was the first team of volunteers – medical doctors, pharmacists, diabetes educators, and communication specialists – to provide on-the-ground support to the HOPE Centre in South Africa. During our two-week stay, we conducted diabetes health screenings by walking door-to-door and setting up a tent in a busy market. We developed easy-to-use education tools that allow staff to teach patients more about diabetes and the importance of taking their medication. We built gardens in small patches of land, allowing those facing diabetes to have ready access to nutritious food. And we trained staff and volunteers at the HOPE Centre how to run an efficient clinic and pharmacy.

Did we make a lasting difference in two weeks? It’s too soon to tell. Ultimately, we will know our program has been successful if we are able to improve the quality of life for local patients, reduce overall healthcare costs, and establish an evidence-based model that other communities can use to address chronic disease.

But here’s what I already know: we showed our commitment to each of the residents we encountered.

For me, as I held the baby, I could not help but be overwhelmed by the amount of progress that still needs to be made. No doubt, battling chronic disease, especially diabetes, in developing countries is going to be a long road. But now is the time that we must make a difference – not only for those facing diabetes today in the most difficult of conditions, but also for the growing number of people who will face diabetes in the future.

References

1. International Diabetes Federation web site accessed on July 3, 2013: http://www.idf.org/diabetesatlas/5e/africa?language=zh-hans

 

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About the author:

Amy Sousa received her undergraduate degrees in biology and psychology from the University of Virginia in 1996. Since graduation, she has worked as editor of an environmental publication, manager of communications for a non-profit organization, and account director at a public relations agency, all based in Indianapolis, Indiana in the United States. Currently, she is communications director for Eli Lilly and Company’s emerging markets business area.

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