Project HOPE team visits villages in Benin, Togo
By Kim Walter
At 57, Judi Knickerbocker cannot only say that she has helped hundreds of people locally, but also that she has helped and educated hundreds of individuals around the world.
In September, the registered nurse went on her fourth trip with Project HOPE, a global health education and humanitarian aid organization. She visited the African countries of Benin and Togo, acting as a pediatric and community health nurse educator.
The recent mission was called Africa Partnership Station 2012, and involved doctors and nurses with Project HOPE as well as the U.S. Navy. The team traveled in a Navy vessel called the HSV-2 Swift, and while they were also supposed to stay and live on the ship throughout the two-week mission, complications arose that required the Navy needing the ship elsewhere.
Knickerbocker, who has worked with the Winchester Medical Center for 37 years, went on her first trip with Project HOPE and the Navy in 2005 to provide disaster relief following the Indian Ocean tsunami. Since then, she has worked on the Navy's Mercy in Vietnam and the Comfort in Haiti and following Hurricane Katrina.
She learned of the trip to West Africa only a month before the team was setting sail, but jumped at the opportunity.
"All in all it was a pretty big operation," she said. "But the Navy and Marines were fantastic with security, and instructed us where to go, where not to go, and when to do what."
While there, the assassination of Libyan ambassador Chris Stevens was still fresh, which took security precautions to a whole other level, Knickerbocker said.
"It was a little nerve wracking with all the upheaval and protests, but we were well informed and protected," she said.
Knickerbocker also said that contrary to what some people might think, the Africans that the group came in contact with never rejected them or their help.
"It was kind of amazing, because you had people in villages walking around with all these different ailments and injuries, but they wouldn't ask for anything," she said. "But if you offered to help, they couldn't stop saying thank you."
One day during a "Medcap," which is when the team would go into villages and conduct checkups and distribute medications and educational materials, over 500 people showed up. Some folks wound up getting glasses, while others needed basic medications and things like toothbrushes and toothpaste.
"The bad thing is, you can't always get them what they need," Knickerbocker said. "Some of these people have no where to go to get check ups ... the follow up care there is disappointing."
After one session of meeting with a tribe, their chief brought the Project HOPE members back to their village, and his people did a tribal dance and musically performed for them "as a way of saying thank you."
"You know, I was sitting there looking around at the children, and besides the obvious diseases, they seemed happy, dancing and singing," she said. "It's amazing how much entertainment they could get out of a couple nuts and sticks."
Many tribal women needed pain medicine, which made sense to Knickerbocker since a majority of them had grown up carrying water jugs and buckets on their heads for large distances.
"There were a lot of people with pinworms, because they just eat anything off the street and other unsanitary surfaces," she said. "I did a lot of teaching them how to properly wash their hands and why it was important that they do it."
Knickerbocker added that the team gave out about 500,000 condoms.
"Everybody wanted them...they were flavored," she said and laughed. "The AIDS epidemic is decreasing in that part of Africa, though."
Other education included information about malaria, eye and tooth care and just health in general.
"We always had good crowds, and for the most part they seemed to understand the basics," Knickerbocker said. "Of course, we go in and try to give them health care, but if we can go in and teach health care, then they can take care of themselves."
Now that she's been back from the trip for over a month, Knickerbocker is already waiting to hear about the next mission.
"What I really want to do is retire and go on a mission for two or three months instead of a few weeks. The longer you can stay, the more opportunity you have to make a difference," she said. "But this past trip was one of my best, and I have to thank Project HOPE for offering such a wonderful volunteer opportunity."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org