KEARNEY — Waking up on her first morning in Tanzania, Renae Olson saw something she never dreamed she would see: Mount Kilimanjaro.

A self-described Army brat, Olson had traveled extensively as a child, but she’d never been to Africa. “I’d never dreamed of this. It wasn’t on my bucket list,” she said. Now, five months after that trip, her heart is still taking in what her eyes saw.

Olson, a front-line nurse navigator at the Cancer Center at CHI Health Good Samaritan, traveled to Tanzania Feb. 15 to March 1 with the CHI Health/Immanuel 2018 travel team that included CHI Health senior leaders and front-line nurses. The invite came from Kathy Bressler, senior vice president and chief operating officer for CHI Health. Olson was selected because she is the president of CHI Health Good Samaritan’s Nursing Shared Governance Council.

It was the first time that anyone from Good Sam has visited Tanzania. The mission there was launched in 2001 by Immanuel Lutheran Hospital in Omaha, another CHI Health hospital.

The two-week trip began with a 30-hour air journey from Omaha through Amsterdam. Olson spent the first night in a tiny hotel that cost $15 a night. For the next two weeks, she saw “abysmal” living conditions, but happy people.

“Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world,” Olson said. Poverty complicates health problems for people with AIDS/HIV and orthopedic problems, mental health issues and more. AIDS has ravaged the country and left many orphans, but only established Tanzanian residents are permitted to adopt children.

The team focused its visit on the 200-bed Machame Hospital in the Kilimanjaro region. The hospital serves an area so rural that expectant mothers come before their babies are due because the hospital is a 10-mile walk from their homes. They can stay for 25 cents a day.

“There is no air conditioning and no reliable electricity,” Olson said. “Numerous times, the light would blink off. The hospital has generators, but unless they are doing surgery, they don’t turn them on.” Patients stay in large beds in spacious wards, with two patients to each bed. The hospital has no kitchen and no cafeteria, but it does have a small grocery store, so patients’ families accompany them to the hospital to cook for them. They wash patients’ laundry by hand and hang it on clotheslines.

“Tanzanians used to ride bicycles, but now small motorcycles are popular as taxis. Two people hop onto them, but there are no traffic laws or signals, and road conditions are poor,” Olson said.

CHI Health’s work in Tanzania began in 2002 as part of its mission is to care for the poor, the needy and the underserved. In this effort, CHI Health partnered with Immanuel and its work with Machame Hospital. Bob Kasworm, a 35-year veteran of CHI Health, is the country director for CHI Health-Tanzania. He led the effort in Tanzania when it began and was so drawn to it that he moved to Tanzania in 2004 and has lived there ever since.

Along with money, CHI Health sends the hospital gently used items such as beds, uniforms with outdated logos and more, “but we have to be careful that everything can be used there. With their lack of electricity, we can’t send a modern EKG machine,” Olson said.

Donations from CHI Health helped build Machame’s orthopedic surgical suite and surgical facilities. Since its completion in 2010, Machame Hospital’s Orthopedic Center has performed more than 12,000 procedures, including trauma repair, corrective surgery for children with birth defects and disease. The hospital also has an outpatient clinic and a small pharmacy.

The medical staff has little to work with, “but they are so happy to be doing what they do and to be helping others,” Olson said. Infant mortality in Tanzania is high. There is no radiation or chemotherapy for cancer patients. Olson met a breast cancer patient in the hospice unit whose tumor had been removed surgically but could not have chemo or radiation because it does not exist.

The Tanzanian government supports medical care, but it often is short of money, so “people working in the hospital don’t even know if they’re going to be paid, but they’re still doing it,” Olson said. “When I asked someone, ‘Why don’t they find another job?’ I was told, ‘They love what they do.’ They are all in this together.” She realized that “we’re all nurses, whether we have updated technology or just basic things.”

CHI Health also helps educate nurses. Tanzania has just one nurse per 2,800 residents. So far, CHI Health has financed the three-year-education program of 91 nurses because many Tanzanians cannot afford the tuition of $1,700 per year.

Olson also became familiar with a project called Houses for Health, which can build a two-room home for $3,500. The home has no electricity or plumbing, but it is dry. “It’s basically a roof over their heads,” Olson said. The organization uses 100 percent local materials and labor. So far, 140 of these homes have been built.

Olson attended the dedication of two homes. One was built for Simon Daimon Njau, 59, whose mud-brick house with a grass roof had been partially destroyed by a storm. Njau is raising his three grandchildren because his daughter Naomi is HIV positive. A second house went to Terasia Nairogwa, a Masai widow who does not know her age. She is taking care of five grandchildren, ages nearly 2 to 14.

After Olson returned home in March, Good Sam raised enough money to build a house and sponsor a nursing student’s education. One hundred percent of every donation goes directly to Houses for Health or to sponsor a Machame Hospital School of Nursing student.

Olson still has the necklace that local residents gave each member of her group when it arrived. “I was so blessed to be able to go, and I am blessed to be born in the U.S.,” she said. “Health care is so wonderful here. I’m proud to work for CHI Health. CHI Health is truly living their mission of helping people less fortunate. Tanzanians are decades behind, but they are so happy. They don’t need pity. They just need our love.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the invite to Tanzania came from Cathy Brewer.

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