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Local hospice helps keep fellow workers on the job in Tanzania

Hospices in Africa are getting a boost from their American counterparts.

In the mid-2000s workers at Gilchrist Hospice Care had raised about $5,000 for some counterparts in Tanzania to give their overwhelmed center a boost. But when U.S. government aid ran out in 2011 for Nkoaranga Lutheran Hospital palliative-care program, the Baltimore area caregivers made a decision.

They would step up fundraising, by selling dolls and bracelets and hosting events. And they now pay the entire $50,000 annual operating budget for the palliative-care program, which serves up to 900 terminally ill patients at any time in the mountainous northern part of the country where life expectancy is no more than 50 years.

"We were so moved by what they do with so little," said Robin Stocksdale, Gilchrist's grief services manager, who also manages the Tanzania hospice fundraising program. "When we heard they were losing funding we didn't want the program to fold. It was never really an option."

The grass-roots efforts at Gilchrist are part of a larger volunteer attempt to provide services to the dying in Africa, where painkillers are rare and the idea of palliative care is still unheard of in many regions, according to care organizations.

Gilchrist hooked up with their program through Global Partners in Care, which was created in 1999 during the AIDS pandemic and now links 81 U.S. hospice and hospital organizations in 30 states with groups in 13 countries in Africa serving 60,000 patients. The group is expanding to India and other countries.

There are few other funding sources for such centers, and Gilchrist's commitment goes beyond what most partners provide, according to John Mastrojohn, the group's executive director and executive vice president of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

"There is a huge unmet need, especially in the developing world," he said. "In fact, 80 percent of the global need for palliative care is in low- and middle-income countries. A compounding issue is the treatment of pain. … These countries, which represent 83 percent of the world's population, utilized a mere 8 percent of total morphine consumption worldwide."

Lack of painkillers makes it a bit tougher for the staff of five and 40 volunteers at Nkoaranga, who primarily serve people with AIDS, but also those with heart disease, other diseases and problems associated with aging, said Nkoaranga's palliative-care doctor, Bartholomew Bakari. Most patients and their families are glad for the aid, which includes some medical care, emotional support, counseling and bereavement services and even prayer.

With Gilchrist's help, the program has enhanced "respect for health and life" and reduced "community anxiety about death," Bakari said.

"Our vision for the future is that palliative care will be a gradual and natural increasing component of care from diagnosis to death," he said via email from Tanzania. "We will ensure that patients with a life-limiting condition, and their families, can easily access a level of high-quality palliative-care service that is appropriate to their needs, regardless of age, care setting, or diagnosis."

Hundreds of full and part-time staff at Gilchrist, an affiliate of Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson, are constantly trying to fill the hospice's needs. With help from the Rotary Club of Hunt Valley and Cole Foundation, they bought a special ambulance, a Toyota Land Cruiser big enough for a stretcher, able to reach patients in remote areas, in the rainy season, miles from the hospice.

The staff also has paid for scholarships for a half-dozen children whose parents died of AIDS and for playground items at the hospital, as well as Bakari's salary.

Now the workers are raising money to build the hospice its own wing at the hospital to care for patients whose pain is uncontrolled, as well as to hold events and training for volunteers and medical trainees from other hospitals.

Stocksdale said they would continue to sell items, encourage payroll deductions and hold events to raise money for Nkoaranga.

"We have a common cause," she said. "We'll do this as long as there is a need."

An earlier version misstated the year Nkoaranga Lutheran Hospital palliative-care program lost U.S. aid. The Sun regrets the error.

Meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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