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Seattle doctor back from Congo, learned to diagnose better

The latest violence in central Africa is resonating with a group of doctors in the Puget Sound area. They’re medical relief workers who take time off from local clinics and hospitals to work in battle zones. Some are sharing their stories tonight, Nov. 28th, at a film screening in Seattle sponsored by Doctors Without Borders (details below). 

For example, Dr. Terra Bowles is just back from her third stint in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

She normally works half the year at two urgent-care clinics in Auburn and Kent. She's a family practitioner, and a lot of what she sees on a typical day in these local clinics would seem pretty minor to anyone in the Congo.

"People with colds or coughs, or a little bit of diarrhea, or whatever..." says Bowles.

"When I'm in the Congo, I have more patients die in my hands--more children-- in a week than a lot of doctors here have in a career. But, I also save a lot of lives."

Bowles says working in these conditions makes her a better doctor when she returns to the two MultiCare clinics in south King County–because she's learned to solve problems without the aid of technology.


"Here, we lose touch with examining the patient well, and utilizing some very core examination skills and logic," she says.

In fact, she says, all the buzz about using cell phones and other mobile technologies to deliver rural health-care still seemed far-fetched in the Congo.

"That was not yet a possibility by a long shot. Where I was, we did not have cell service at all," and temporary internet service that they setup in their clinic would go down whenever it rained, she says.

Bowles has been stationed outside the Congo’s current war-zone that’s in the headlines (Kivu provinces). But, in the past, she 's been in areas with regular rebel skirmishes, and she says one thing to keep in mind about all the war stories out of the Congo: The average person is just trying to put food on the table and avoid the struggles.

"Truthfully, until there is basic development, and some of these basic infrastructures come into place, such as roads and cell phones, it will be difficult to have sustainable impact [on people's health]," she says.

And the death of a loved one is as heartbreaking there as it is here.


Movie Trailer for "Access to the Danger Zone"

Local events with Doctors Without Borders:

  • Film screening of "Access to the Danger Zone," Wed., at the Harvard Exit cinema, 7pm. 
  • Panel discussion, "Remote Access: Closing the Digital Divide in Global Health," Thurs., McCaw Hall at Seattle Center, 7pm.
Keith Seinfeld has been KPLU’s Health & Science Reporter since 2001, and prior to that covered the Environment beat. He’s been a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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