A Visiting Doctor's Lessons

Dr. Jenny Bass treats a child at Olmoti Clinic

Dr. Jenny Bass treats a child at Olmoti Clinic

Dr. Jennifer Bass of Portland, Oregon, has published a moving article about her time volunteering at Olmoti Clinic this past summer, an experience, she says, that “rekindled my joy in being a pediatrician.”

“I have been a pediatrician for more than 20 years and love my chosen profession,” she writes in her article “Teachable Moments from the Maasai” in the journal Academic Pediatrics. But she’s sometimes felt “underappreciated” -- spending too much energy with parents who refuse vaccines, pressured by short, rushed visits, pushed to see more patients, chained to electronic chartHer experience with the Maasai could not have been more different – though initially she had some doubts: “What could I really do to help?” she writes. “How would I manage without my computer, access to online resources, and similar colleagues? How would I relate to people who were so different?”

Her worries soon faded. She treated 100 children over four days, some coming from as far away as Kenya to see a western doctor. The clinic’s medical officer, Peter, served as translator.  

“Unlike my practice in the United States, where my medical assistant asks for the chief complaint, takes the vital signs, and has the patient undress, Peter and I did everything ourselves,” Dr. Bass writes. “Freed from extensive charting, almost all our time was focused on engaging with patients” and using observation skills needed in the absence of electronic records and staff help. Most common were respiratory conditions caused by indoor open-fire cooking. She advised Olmoti’s staff on current standard-of-care medicines.

“I had no set schedule and no agenda other than addressing the current issues that each family brought to me,” Dr. Bass recalls. “The line stretched far out the door, but people waited calmly, without impatience. Working under these conditions was a pleasure. It reminded me of the reasons I became a pediatrician and taught me to stop worrying so much about time.”

“For most families, I offered reassurance that everything appropriate was being done for their child. Even though I often didn’t do or add much, the families seemed to feel better after a visit with me. At the end of each child’s exam, parents would thank me, and say a Maasai expression that meant sorry for bothering you.”

“For the Maasai, I was a connection to Western medicine, a healer, and a teacher.” She’s carried a bit of Maasai culture home, both in the beaded, jingly necklace the people gave her, and in her approach with her patients -- taking a bit more time to sit with them. “I will read part of a book with the younger ones or talk with the older ones about what they like to do for fun.”

Working with the Maasai, she says, “reminded me of the special power that comes with being a physician. As pediatricians, parents trust us with their children.”

Read Dr. Bass’ full article here