Knowing that this would be a life changing experience for me as well as Ingrid and Ella, I wanted to keep a blog of my thoughts so that I could share with you our incredible journey to Rwanda.
Our preparations for traveling to Rwanda began long before our trip. I had already gotten my immunizations before traveling to the Democratic Republic of Congo in July with the Clinton Global Initiative, but Ingrid and Ella both had to get their shots before our trip. Ingrid and I both asked Ella many times if she wanted to get the shots so that she could go on the trip and every time she would say, “Yes Papa, I want to go to Africa. We’re going to help sick children.” When we went to the doctor, Ella did cry as she got her 3 shots, but within a matter of minutes she was so proud to show off her bandages. And believe me, she showed everyone those bandages! As a parent, it was so painful to see Ella crying as she got the shots because you never want your children to be in pain or suffering. This thought is something that would remain clear in my mind as we visited each of the hospitals in Rwanda.
Day 1 & Day 2:
Our journey began from the United States in New York on Tuesday, December 6 at 4 P.M. Rwanda is 7 hours ahead of the Eastern Time zone, so we “lost” some time while traveling. Ella was great during the flights -- she colored, played games, watched movies and slept. We arrived at the hotel early Thursday morning (December 8 at 1 AM), which was about 26 hours travel time. We were very tired and quickly went to sleep before our first full day in Rwanda.
After a few hours of sleep and breakfast, we were off to visit our first of three hospitals in Rwanda. Our first stop was at CHUK, which is a hospital in the capital city of Kigali. We toured the facility and visited with some of the families. The Ministry of Health has made great strides in their national healthcare system; however our hospitals in the United States differ greatly from those in Rwanda. The unfortunate fact is that the equipment and treatment that many of the patients desperately need is not readily available. We met one young child who we were told has been in the hospital for four months suffering from a form of pediatric cancer that is easily treatable in the U.S., but had not received treatment because the hospital did not have the needed resources. This child was on the brink of death. The emotions and thoughts that race through your mind as you see first-hand the pain, suffering and helplessness of these children is something you can’t describe. You want to help. You want to change it. You want to make a difference. In your mind, you know that not only are the children suffering, but also the parents as they are forced to bear the pain of seeing their suffering child slip away.
From there, we had a two and a half hour drive up a bumpy and hilly dirt road to Rwinkwavu. Rwinkwavu is a public hospital that is supported by Partners In Health, which is the organization that the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation has partnered with for our efforts in Rwanda. The landscape and topography of Rwanda is absolutely beautiful, and the view from the hospital in Rwinkwavu is amazing. We toured the grounds before going to the pediatric cancer wing to visit with the children.
Prior to the trip, the women of The Promise Circle (an amazing group of women who support the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation) sewed nearly 100 handmade quilts that we took with us to give out while we were there. Ella helped Ingrid, Trish (Director of the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation) and I pass out the quilts to both the children and their mothers. I’ve never been more proud of anything in my life. To see our 4-year old daughter go through the room and give out these quilts with such compassion and tell each of them, ‘I hope you feel better’, is something that makes you so proud as a parent.
The people of Rwanda are amazing. They are so happy and have great personalities despite their circumstances. Everyone was so grateful for the quilts, and a heartfelt thanks to The Promise Circle for providing them.
I wish I could tell you that everything we saw was great, but sadly it was not. These children were suffering from many different things – some with cancerous tumors, some with breathing issues related to cancer, some who had lost all of their hair. In addition to the disease, the hospital staff has to drape mosquito nets over the children’s beds in an attempt to prevent them from also catching malaria. These images will never leave my mind.
On our return trip, we stopped at an oncology patient’s home. She was 14 years old and had been successfully treated at the Rwinkwavu hospital for Burkitt’s Lymphoma, (a form of pediatric cancer). Previously, she had a large tumor growing on the side of her face. With the proper treatment that was made available through Partners in Health and their supporting partners, she is doing very well and has made a considerable recovery. Stories like this are what inspire me to continue our work in Rwanda.
After returning to Kigali, we had a wonderful dinner with the honorable Minister of Health for Rwanda, Agnes Binagwaho. We even became friends on Twitter! (@agnesbinagwaho) Agnes is an incredible woman who is extremely passionate about continuing the advancement of healthcare in Rwanda. It really means a lot to have strong support from the Rwandan government for the efforts of the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation and Partners in Health in our efforts to bring pediatric cancer equipment and treatment to the country.
Our second full day in Rwanda began early as we set out on a four hour car ride to the city of Butaro on some of the roughest and most treacherous roads I’ve ever seen. Butaro is a high elevation, rural city that is within one of the most densely populated districts of the country. The Ministry of Health hospital in Butaro is also supported by Partners In Health. The facility was recently completed in February of 2011. While the facility is beautiful, they still lack the equipment and treatment needed to properly care for patients with some cancers and other diseases. Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa. It is comparable in size to the state of Maryland and has a population of 11 million people. Out of 11 million people, the entire country has only one doctor that is a cancer specialist. This is where the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation, Partners in Health and the Ministry of Health of Rwanda will work together to construct a pediatric cancer center that will provide preventative care and treatment.
Once we arrived at Butaro, we ate lunch and were entertained by some of the locals who performed traditional dances. It was great, and yes they did get me out there with them. No, I didn’t show them any break dancing moves.
The level of care at Butaro is definitely more advanced than at other healthcare facilities in the country, but we still faced the realities of cancer rampant among the children at Butaro. We were once again able to provide some of the children and mothers with quilts from The Promise Circle which brought a smile and joy to their faces if only for a moment. I wish I could put into words how much it moves you when you are knelt down in front of a sick child battling cancer and you see the pain and hurt in their eyes. You know in your heart that it just isn’t right and that we have to do something about it.
We were accompanied on our trip by Dr. Larry Schulman who is the Chief Medical Officer at the Dana Farber Institute and a leading oncologist. He said something that I still hear ringing in my ears, “Jeff, the stark truth is that if any of us died and were not here tomorrow, there would be plenty of others in the United States who could help provide cancer care to children there. They can get along fine without me or help from people like you and your foundation. But, if we weren’t here tomorrow helping in Rwanda, there is no one else. There is no one else currently helping to provide cancer care and treatment here in Rwanda. If we don’t help these children, they die.”
On our return trip to Kigali, we stopped and talked to some locals that run a community center in their town. They shared with us how they work together to help those in need and that require care. It was amazing to hear how their village bonded together to help those within the community.
Ingrid, Ella and I left for Nyungwe Forest which is a monkey sanctuary where we spent the day. Ella was so excited to see the monkeys. She had been talking about them for weeks before our trip. It was a really great experience. Ella made sure that we got a monkey (stuffed animal) to take back to Leo, and she appropriately decided that his name should be Kigali.
Day 6 & 7:
We came back early Sunday morning to Kigali where I went to an FIA rally race. Wow, those guys were racing at pretty high speed around the mountainsides at high altitude with no barriers. Pretty cool getting to see some racing in Rwanda.
After the race, we came back for our last meeting which was with the honorable Minister of Health and other key healthcare individuals in the country. We were able to strategize and discuss ways in which we can work together to really help further advance healthcare in Rwanda.
We finished packing and began our return flight at 4 PM on Sunday. Once again, Ella was great throughout the entire flight (she slept a little more this time). We made it back to New York at about 11 AM on Monday after gaining our 7 hours back.
Our trip to Rwanda was truly a life changing experience. It has completely changed my perspective on virtually every aspect of life. I hope that through this blog and photos that we have from the trip, you are able to see just a glimpse into the harsh reality that these children are living in. Once you’ve seen the incredible hardships and pain that these children face, you will see that we have to help. As Dr. Larry said, if we don’t help these children they will die, and I personally cannot accept knowing we are capable of helping prevent these children from dying and doing nothing. I’ve challenged myself to not only continue the work of the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation and my efforts personally, but to do more because a child suffering from cancer is a child suffering from cancer. The location of the child or their skin color does not matter. They are all innocent children and they deserve the right to live, be healthy and enjoy life. That doesn’t mean we’re in anyway scaling back our support for pediatric cancer care and treatment in the United States. It means that we’re committed to doing more. I hope that you will join me. Let’s be a team and race to a victory lane where children are not faced with the threat of childhood cancer. For info on how you can help, visit www.JeffGordonChildrensFoundation.org.
To view the full photo gallery of over 100 images from our trip, click here.