Volunteering at FAME Health Clinic in Tanzania: Kathy Gaines, RN and Thomson guest, shares her story

Written by Thomson Safaris

Kathy Gaines is a registered nurse with 29 years of experience in pediatrics, maternal child health and medical/surgical nursing. She has visited Tanzania with Thomson Safaris nine times. During her most recent trip to Tanzania, she volunteered at the health clinic, Foundation for African Medicine & Education (FAME) in Karatu. She shares her experiences with us below.

While on safari three years ago, I delivered a young Maasai woman’s infant in the back of a Land Rover. Obviously, this wasn’t a planned event on my safari itinerary! I just happened to be in the area and was the only medical professional able to handle what had become a complicated delivery. This was my introduction to medicine in Tanzania – it was an eye-opening experience and alerted me to the need for better access to quality medical care in Tanzania.

The emergency delivery was the impetus to volunteer my time as an RN at FAME. I spent almost a month at the clinic, which was founded by American physician Dr. Frank and his wife Susan in 2002. In order to maintain a sustainable operation, volunteers are not used to staff the clinic; they are used to educate the staff. My role as an RN at FAME included educating the nurses in both the clinic and inpatient ward and kick-starting their pharmacy program.

One of the issues facing the clinic is maintaining an ample supply of medications. So I took inventory of every pill, vial and ampule in both the clinic and inpatient ward and entered the data into their computer system. I have to admit, it was an overwhelming task but a very important one as the results directly affect patient care. I sat with the staff to make sure that they understood how to use the system.

Inpatient Ward
I also spent time on the inpatient ward, a 12-bed unit that opened approximately four months prior to my arrival. I helped educate the nurses staffing this new facility on basic tasks such as drip rates for IV fluids, correctly taking vital signs, reading MD orders, and sterile techniques for wound care/changing dressings. The nurses had differing degrees of skill; the clinic aims to elevate their skill sets to facilitate future plans of opening an obstetrics unit for delivery and care of mothers and their newborns as well as opening up an emergency room, which I spent some time helping to set up.


Renata receiving treatment at FAME clinic in Tanzania


Eleven-year old Renata’s first visit to the clinic was in 2008 in congestive heart failure. She was found to have rheumatic heart disease, which was treated with medications until it became progressively worse. In 2010 she was sent to Germany to have an aortic valve replacement. (A physician who spent some time at FAME and met Renata donated the trip and surgery).

When I arrived at FAME, Renata had been in the clinic for a little over a month. She had returned with complaints of nausea, vomiting and weight loss and was diagnosed with an infection of her heart and likely her new valve. She is a wonderful, young girl – along with her caring mom, who remained at her side from the instant she was admitted – she won me over. The FAME staff was won over too!

To treat Renata, I was tasked with developing a drinkable shake to help increase her weight. This is easier said then done; we had to find ingredients available locally as well things she would like – her favorite flavors included Orange Fanta and Pringles! I was able to come up with something she would tolerate and would hopefully help her to put some weight back on. I look forward to hearing updates on her condition from my contacts at the clinic.

Thoughts on Volunteering in Tanzania
The time that I spent at FAME went by very quickly and I wondered if my stay had any impact. In retrospect, I know I left my mark. No matter how small, everyone who volunteers time at FAME makes a lasting impact. Perhaps mine will be made when Dr. Frank says one day, “we haven’t run out of any medication in months since Kathy straightened out the pharmacy program!”

I ended my stay in Tanzania by joining a group at Gibb’s Farm that just climbed Kilimanjaro and was on a 4-day safari with Thomson. How could I go all the way to Tanzania and not go on my 9th safari?! It was a pleasant surprise to meet up with Kileo, a wonderful guide I have met on some of my previous safaris.

I was also very grateful to the Thomson guides who stopped by to say hello while I was at FAME. These included Kaoneka, Kumbi and Leonard. It was nice to see familiar, friendly faces so far from home. They have become friends to me.

My nursing career has been enriched by my time spent at FAME. I feel it was an experience that was meant to be and I feel strongly that I have more to contribute to FAME in the near future. I will return to the clinic again.