Chamberlain Student Nurses Visit a Leper Colony in Kenya


On the most recent International Nursing Service Project trip to Kenya, Chamberlain student nurses and faculty treated approximately 2,300 people—most in a makeshift clinic at the mouth of one of Kenya’s largest slums. 

For those unable to travel to the clinic, student nurses traveled to them.

“When we do the home visits, we go into the depths of these neighborhoods,” said Susan Fletcher, EdD, MSN, BSN, professor of international studies at Chamberlain College of Nursing. “The further you go into the slums, the worse it gets—the poverty level increases dramatically.”

What they found on a home visit this trip shocked even Dr. Fletcher, the pioneer of the Project: a segregated leper colony of approximately 100 people in the heart of the slum.

“They were in various stages of leprosy,” Dr. Fletcher said. “For many of them, all of their digits on their hands and feet were gone. Some of them had new sores on the bottom of their heels, which is an indicator that eventually they will lose more of their foot.”

What is Leprosy?

Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, has been around for thousands of years and often has a social stigma attached, due to fear of transmission. Left untreated, the disease continues to progress, causing permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Chamberlain’s student nurses were immediately struck by the warm nature and positivity of the group, who had clearly suffered so much. One woman with malaria wanted to be sure all the students had taken anti-malarial drugs before they treated her.

“The older people of the group had no fingers and toes, and they were pretty functional without their digits,” said Stephanie Arbogast, a nursing student at Chamberlain’s St. Louis campus. “One woman had Velcro shoes and she wanted to show us how she was able to take them on and off and Velcro them without her fingers.”

Added Dr. Fletcher: “She’s smiling, putting these shoes on her half feet because she doesn’t have toes. There’s another woman who was so excited to show us how she could wash the dishes without hands. The resilience of these people will blow you away.”

Treatment of Leprosy

Today, leprosy can be fully cured through 6-12 months of multi-drug therapy (MDT), according to WHO.

“You don’t have to have any limb loss due to leprosy if it’s diagnosed and treated in early stages,” Dr. Fletcher said. “There is a very good treatment for it so that it doesn’t progress, but unfortunately these folks aren’t getting it.”

The group is not getting the necessary medications, as the Kenyan government does not provide treatment to those from other countries. All the colony’s inhabitants are from the bordering country of Tanzania, Dr. Fletcher said. Given that the medication is cost-prohibitive, the group has gone untreated and the disease has continued to progress unchecked.

After stumbling upon the colony, the Chamberlain group got to work providing the care they could— without the necessary MDT to fully cure the disease— including caring for wounds, some of which were down to the bone from lack of treatment.

“A lot of the older people were not only missing digits, but they were also blind,” Arbogast said. “They don’t get up and move a lot so they had ulcers on their heels. I cleaned out their wounds and showed them how to take care of their wounds and keep them clean.”

Before each trip, the Chamberlain community collects medical supplies and toys to be distributed — for this trip, they collected more than 2,000 pounds of supplies. On the next trip to Kenya, Dr. Fletcher is hoping to collect enough medication to treat all those suffering from Hansen’s disease in this slum.

“We left a lot of dressings there for them to keep the wounds as clean as possible,” Dr. Fletcher said. “And we made a promise that we’d be back.”

Read more about the group’s trip to Kenya.

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