Striving for their survival
Survival rates for paediatric cancer cases in Tanzania have tripled in the four years since Trish Scanlon from Wicklow arrived in the capital, writes ELLEN BARR
PAEDIATRIC CONSULTANT Trish Scanlan says her colleagues in the Tanzanian hospital where she works refer to her as the “crazy Irish doctor”.
As the only children’s cancer specialist in a country with a population of 43.2 million, the Wicklow woman could be forgiven for being a little crazy.
When she arrived in the University Hospital in the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam in 2008, children with cancer were left alone in their ward for hours, unsupervised and untreated because there was no money to pay nurses to work nightshifts.
Despite the best intentions of dedicated staff, medication was scarce and children who were diagnosed had little hope of surviving. Survival rates for children diagnosed stood at 12 per cent compared with figures of 75-80 per cent of children in Ireland being cured of their cancer.
Fast forward four years and Scanlan, originally from Windgate near Bray, has presided over the tripling of survival rates for paediatric cancer cases in the troubled South African country. With more children receiving treatment than ever before, that trend looks set to continue.
While the news is positive, the energetic doctor continually finds herself in the middle of heartbreaking stories where parents have travelled for days with their child at death’s door. She says it’s the spirit and bravery of the children and the dignity of their parents which keeps her motivated.
“You see these kids coming in and they can’t walk or breathe and their bellies are so swollen and you really fear for them,” she explains.
“Sometimes I see them being admitted and I’ll come in the next day and the bed is empty. I’ll ask whether that child has died overnight and I’m often told that they’ve received treatment and are up and back at school. That’s how instant the impact can be when children get access to the medicine they need. Kids don’t want to be lying in bed. As soon as they’re able, they want to be up and about again. They are so so brave.
“When there are children we can’t save because they’ve come to us too late and we have to tell the parents, they are always so grateful and understanding. Their first reaction is always to thank us for treating their child because many of them have waited years for some help. They are amazing people.”
The affable 38 year old doesn’t see her role as an isolated one and says the support from colleagues at Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin has contributed to the saving of many lives in the humble hospital ward thousands of miles away in Dar es Salaam.
“Crumlin is where I spent most of my time training and I cannot say enough good things about the people who work there,” she says.
“They are unbelievably supportive – every single department – from the cleaning staff, library, clinical engineering, surgery, anaesthetics, pharmacy, laboratory, resuscitation training, medical consultants and nurses – they all give me advice, many have visited, helped fill in the gaps we have by providing their services and expertise and all completely free of charge. Our oncology ward is almost an unofficial outreach centre for Crumlin.”