Yukoner heads to the HIV front lines

Stephanie Bamforth is finally going to do the kind of nursing she's always wanted. In a month, she'll be tending the sick in Oudalan province, Burkina Faso, where people live in raised thatched homes to keep from being buried in sandstorms.

Stephanie Bamforth is finally going to do the kind of nursing she’s always wanted.

In a month, she’ll be tending the sick in Oudalan province, Burkina Faso, where people live in raised thatched homes to keep from being buried in sandstorms.

And where water is a priceless, rationed commodity.

The goat-herding people who live there don’t need $50-million hospitals or X-ray machines.

“All these people need is good food, clean water, some family planning and vaccination,” says Bamforth, a surgical nurse at Whitehorse General Hospital.

Carrying thousands of dollars worth of simple medical supplies, Bamforth will volunteer in a clinic in Oudalan and another in the Volta region of Ghana during November and December.

“Ghana will be relatively in the bush and Burkina Faso will be even further,” she said.

“It’s a long jeep ride between the two.”

The clinics are tended to by one or two apprenticing locals. But they depend on visiting volunteers who bring supplies and training to a region.

Antibiotics, deworming tablets, puffers, dressing supplies, stethoscopes and antimalarials are just some of the supplies Bamforth will bring.

But education on basic health is the only way to make the supplies useful.

The people in Oudalan still practise animist traditions like marking a girl’s face when she gets her first period and sewing up the labium of the vagina until marriage.

Though she’s against genital mutilation, Bamforth will wait and see what kind of advocacy is possible there.

“We’ll see how it goes,” she said. “I’m not going to preach. I’m going to see what they want to learn and what they need to learn.”

But the clinic can advocate against the medically unsound and painful ritual, she said.

“It puts you at risk of infection and hemorrhage,” she said.

The clinics have had a hard time finding good material for training.

One man was fired for giving too many vaccinations, among other things.

“He was power tripping the whole time,” said Bamforth.

“He was giving injections when he had no place to because he felt like the big man,” she said.

Bamforth knows this because her mother, Andree, has been volunteering in the region for four years.

“She stole this idea from me,” said Bamforth.

Andree, a nursing instructor at Langara College in Vancouver, decided to send some of her students overseas for their training.

It wasn’t long before Andree was heading to Africa once a year herself.

“This is what she does with her vacation time,” said Bamforth.

This will be the first time the mother-daughter team travel together.

During one of Andree’s earlier visits, a young infant stopped breathing during a sneezing fit.

Andree did mouth-to-mouth emergency breathing for four hours, said Bamforth.

The boy still lives in the town where the clinic is.

There are locals, such as a man in Ghana named Christopher, who could one day manage the clinic as a well-educated nurse on his own, said Bamforth.

“We’re hoping to send him to Accra for a nursing clinic,” she said.

But women and those with an aptitude for nursing are hard to find.

At the Ghanian Clinic, in the town of Mafi-Sava, the ambulance driver died of HIV/AIDS six months ago.

His first wife was tested, but his younger wives still don’t know if they’re HIV positive. Nor do his children.

So Bamforth will be carrying as many HIV testing kits as she can.

They’re about two to three dollars each and they’re made by Biolytical, a Richmond, BC-based company.

The tests only take one minute, said Bamforth.

A nurse will typically start talking about what the person will do if the test is positive, preparing their mind for the shock.

Getting the blood sample is like doing a diabetes shot.

“You just continue talking while the test takes place,” she said.

Soon, coloured spots will appear on a pad where the blood and chemical agents have been mixed.

The test is only preliminary – it’s far from a treatment.

But it’s over 99.96 per cent accurate, according to Biolytical.

Underlying health issues, such as nutrition, play a huge role in the susceptibility of people to HIV/AIDS.

A woman near the Ghanian clinic died when she was seven-months pregnant.

She had five miscarriages before this pregnancy and was heavily anemic, said Bamforth.

Originally from Vancouver, Bamforth has been nursing in Whitehorse for several years.

A surgical nurse, she tends to patients before and after surgery at the hospital.

Travelling in less-developed countries was the reason she joined nursing, she said.

She carries with her a copy of Dr. David Werner’s Where There is No Doctor, a highly popular handbook for rural medical practitioners, published in the 1970s.

Werner drew from his experiences working in Mexico to write the book.

Written in simple terms and filled with drawings, it’s an indispensable aid for both emergency situations and medical training.

“It’s my bible,” said Bamforth.

She’s being mentored on rural medicine here by Dr. Rao Tadepalli, president of the Yukon Medical Association, and his wife Dr. Sumathi Gudapati, another practitioner in town.

The African clinics are run by Ananda Marga Universal Relief Team, known as AMURT, an organization that began in India in the 1960s.

It’s kind of like a privately owned peace corps specializing in regions affected by disaster or void of modern development practices.

“Their mission is more about relieving suffering,” said Bamforth.

To help pay for the supplies, Bamforth is hosting a fundraiser at Baked Cafe on October 21 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Nick Mah, a classical guitarist, is putting together some musicians for the money drive.

All funds will help pay for the medical supplies, which Bamforth has already paid for in part with her own money.

Money can also be sent through www.givemeaning.com/project/ghana.

None of the donations are being used to pay for personal travel expenses.

Bamforth will also selling raffle tickets for a chance to win a pair of skis.

Anyone busy that night can just drop by and give a toonie to buy an HIV kit, she said.

To HIV tests will help Bamforth gather statistics on the number of infections in the region.

Once she has enough numbers, she knows an epidemiologist at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, which houses the BC Centre for Excellence for HIV/AIDS, who will help her write grant proposals for more intense outreach.

Right now, the people in remote Ghana and Burkina Faso need only the basics.

“When people need clean water, you’re not doing things like giving out retrovirals,” she said.

Contact James Munson at


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