Reaching New Heights

larkincollageContributed by Lisa Larkin, MD, FACP, NCMP

“People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.” – Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

This past year has been an exciting one for me personally—full of life-changing events and the realization of dreams—starting with the opening of the Women’s Center in May 2013, and culminating most recently in the experiences of a lifetime when I visited Africa in December and January.

After months of planning and preparation, on December 25, my daughter Sydney (20), son John (18) and I departed for a nine-day trip that would take us to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, one of the seven summits and the highest mountain in Africa topping out at 19,341 feet.  I have always loved the mountains and am an avid climber (John and I climbed Washington state’s Mt. Rainer in 2011), but none of us had ever attempted such an arduous trek. While the climb is not as technically difficult as others, it is a slow, high, long and COLD trek to the top, pushing us and our fellow climbers (six others including two other mothers and their adult children) to beyond what we thought were our limits. Nine days on a mountain with no running water, no electricity, no cell service, three days of solid rain, below zero temperatures, frozen water bottles and oxygen levels that simply make one feel silly all may not sound like the vacation of a lifetime, but reaching that summit with my kids was truly exhilarating.

To reward ourselves, we then spent several days on safari visiting the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti, where we witnessed magnificent African wildlife, (and even more magnificent showers and electricity!) It was an amazing way to rest after our trek.

The purpose of the second half of my trip into Kenya was to experience and contribute to furthering women’s health at a higher level. We traveled to Mbakalo Kenya, a small, extremely rural and poor town in the northwest corner of Kenya close to the Uganda border, where we stayed with a local family and worked at a Level One healthcare clinic. The clinic is staffed by one nurse, one lab technician and two clinical officers who function much like physicians, managing the care and treatment of the patients. The clinic was open night and day, seeing approximately 15 patients each day, including many cases of malaria and typhoid. Newborns delivered at the clinic are often cared for by the elderly villagers as the clinic staff is overwhelmed. The conditions were truly humbling: no running water, no way to sterilize instruments and medical waste was simply disposed by being buried in a hole on the ground.

My goals were to learn about the health care needs in rural Africa with the hopes of making an impact on their care on this trip and in the future. One of the goals of the UC Health Women’s Center is to improve the lives and health of women not only here in our region, but also impact the care for women internationally. We hope to achieve this by partnering with African organizations as well as expanding our medical education opportunities for students and residents internationally.

Our final stop was a visit to a Level Five teaching hospital in Nairobi where I toured the new facility and learned about their women’s health programs and mission. From there I ended my trip by presenting a lecture about mid-life women’s health and menopause at Mt. Kenya University to a crowd of more than 200 people—an event almost as nerve-wracking as climbing Mt. Kili! The entire second half of my trip made me recognize just how fortunate much of the world is in its health care practices and knowledge, and how much room there is to help others less fortunate.

I am still buzzing from these incredible experiences—truly, fulfilling life-long dreams. And while not everyone shares my same sense of adventure, I do believe that dreams can be achieved at any age by making a plan and taking action. Whether it’s that first step towards climbing a mountain, that first spin class on the road to getting in shape, or resolving to conquer your fear of public speaking, I urge you to take one small step toward achieving one of your lifelong dreams in 2014.

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