Equipping the Congo: TWU lab technicians bring hope to African medical students

Equipping the Congo: TWU lab technicians bring hope to African medical students

Langley, B.C.—“They’re future doctors, but as far as resources go, they have nothing.” That realization both haunts and inspires Abbotsford resident and chemistry supervisor, Jonathan Paxon. He and his TWU colleague, Langley’s Kim Siemens, recently shelled out 3,000 of their own dollars to fly to Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo and take the first step in converting a basic medical school’s lab into a fully-functioning science lab.

While researching for the project, Paxon visited Université Chrétienne de Kinshasa, the target university. “It’s basically a barebones lab with a little bit of counter space,” he says of the medical school. “No instrumentation, no equipment no supplies—therefore no practical side to what they do.” In addition, all the labs that Paxon and Siemens visited were overcrowded. They had 30 to 40 students per bench, where a lab at Trinity Western University would have eight students per bench.

Learning from books may seem like the next-best alternative, but even that is a bleak prospect in the Congo. Siemens recalls, “We visited a clinic run by a fourth year medical student. It was a tiny shack in the poorest part of the city. And on his bench he had a microscope and a pre-1930’s pocket manual of tropical diseases—and they were diagnosing people from this! It just blew my mind.”

The primary purpose of the trip was to assess the lab and develop a plan for how to set it up in the near future. Half the battle is learning what equipment will work best in the Congo’s corner of the world. For example, materials need to be durable and repairable, since the latest digital technology favoured in North America would be impossible for them to maintain in a remote area with limited resources.

Paxon explains that though they want to help, North Americans will not be running the lab. “Our goal is to simply start up the lab, help them maintain it for three years and then hopefully the lab will be self-staining. It’s their dream as well,” he explains. “This project was the result of their initiative; they contacted Murray and he went about transitioning this for them.” Murray Nickel is another Abbotsford resident committed to making a difference in Africa. An emergency doctor with a house in Abbotsford, Murray has spent roughly five years in the Congo and recently returned there with his family for a least another year.

So far, their initiative is paying off. Earlier this month, Paxon and Siemens completed the proposal and sent it to Fresno Pacific University in California, the fundraisers of the project. If successful, the venture will supply the university’s medical school with the first adequately functioning lab in all of Kinshasa. No small feat for an area where supplies, functioning equipment and even shipping roads are often obsolete.

Paxon, however, feels their visit has already been a success. “Just our presence there was a large encouragement to the university,” he says. “The fact that a couple of technicians from North America would care enough to brave the so-called dangers of their country to actually try to help them meant a lot. They were very appreciative.”

Trinity Western University, located in Langley, B.C., is a not-for-profit Christian liberal arts university enrolling over 3,200 students this year. With a broad based, liberal arts and sciences curriculum, the University offers undergraduate degrees in 38 major areas of study ranging from business, education and computer science to biology and nursing, and 12 other graduate degrees including counselling psychology, theology and administrative
leadership.

Last Updated: 2015-07-13
Author: Keela Keeping