Duncan, Mark, and I arrived at the Cotonou airport late on Saturday night greeted by the smiling faces of our entire Benin team who had come to meet us. Bleary-eyed and jet-lagged, we stumbled into the car to drive to our guest house. As I peered out the window, I remarked in a hushed tone, “I’ve never seen such a dark and peaceful city, I don’t see a single light on.” Mark replied to me, “that is because you’re staring out into the Atlantic Ocean, you can see the city through the left side of the car”. And so began our wonderful trip in Benin.
After spending Sunday recovering from jet lag and stocking up at the grocery store, we started Monday bright and early with a staff meeting at the Benin office. Even though I had only briefly met the staff at the airport a few days before, I felt instantly welcome and amongst friends. Though there were some language barriers due to my lack of speaking French, we chose to view this as an opportunity rather than as an obstacle. Thibaut and Judicael vowed to only speak English to me, and I promised to try and only speak in French with them. This mostly resulted in us dissolving into laughter every time we tried to talk to each other, but I did learn a few key phrases such as, “good afternoon”, “I am well”, “what?”, and “I speak French very well” (possibly a slight exaggeration).
My trip had two major goals, the first being to visit several clinics in different locations to observe the similarities and differences in processes of vaccine delivery from the perspective of a health worker. These visits were extremely helpful as both the health workers and mothers were very open and accepting of me sitting in the clinics, and I am now using the information I gathered to create a health worker observation tool to be used in the future. The second focus of my trip was to learn more about how information is recorded and transmitted through the healthcare system and Benin. I had several meetings with people at the zone and district level who allowed me to interview them and patiently answered as many questions as I could come up with. Each person helped fill in a piece of the larger information map that Mary Michael and I are trying to create. I was also incredibly fortunate that Regina was generous enough to serve as my translator, colleague, tour guide and great friend during these visits as she was an integral part of the success of my trip.
One evening, Fidèle and his wife Carole invited us over to their house for dinner where we got to meet their three beautiful children (all of whom are completely obsessed with Mark). Carole prepared an incredible four-course meal filled with local dishes that we enjoyed along with wonderful conversations. It was such a special evening, and I found it incredibly touching that Fidèle would invite both Duncan and I into his home after knowing us for less than a few weeks.
At the end of the week, Fidèle had a conference in Grand Popo and was gracious enough to invite us to tag along. The three hour drive along the beach was beautiful and gave me a chance to see another side of Benin filled with baby goats (one of my favorite parts of the trip), swaying palm trees, and glimpses of many different villages.
The trip ended much too quickly and soon we were on our way back to the airport. I was surprised at how heavy this weighed on me and how quickly I had grown close to the entire team and in some ways, to the country itself. I hope to return to Benin someday soon (and hopefully with improved French abilities: next trip’s goal-learn 10 phrases)!
The Frontline Health Worker Spotlight series is a monthly feature where we highlight some of the incredible people with which we cross paths in the course of our work.
With a soft voice and a wide smile that reaches to her eyes, Henry Fath exudes warmth, but it is her fiery determination to help her patients that catches one’s attention when listening to Mrs. Henry describe her work.
Since 2011, Mrs. Henry has worked as a licensed nurse at the Agblangandan health clinic, on the outskirts of Benin’s largest city of Cotonou. A mother of four children, Mrs. Henry enjoys spending time with her family, and in her limited spare time, she likes to relax with a book or to travel somewhere new. However, Mrs. Henry’s greatest passion lies in the vaccination room of Agblangandan health clinic, where she devotes her time to helping her patients receive the best possible care. “It is not just about curing my patients,” she explains, “I am also concerned about their emotions, about their happiness. I love my career because it allows me to help my patients improve their overall well-being and to hopefully leave this clinic satisfied with their medical care.”
Mrs. Henry’s undeterred determination to best serve her patients is perhaps most obvious in her reaction to learning how to use the VaxTrac software. In April of 2014, the VaxTrac staff trained Mrs. Henry on the VaxTrac system. When a VaxTrac technician returned unannounced shortly after to visit the clinic and check on the software, he was surprised to walk into a clinic-wide meeting that Mrs. Henry had organized. Standing in front of all of the other health workers, Mrs. Henry was briefing the entire clinic on the purpose of the VaxTrac system and its potential benefits for their clinic. “I was awestruck!” laughs the technician. “It was less than a month after her training with VaxTrac, and as I watched the meeting, I could tell immediately that Mrs. Henry was a leader amongst her peers, guiding them on the new role of the VaxTrac software in their clinic.”
Using the VaxTrac system during her vaccination sessions for the past few months has solidified Mrs. Henry’s belief that the new system can help to further her goal of improving the health of her patients. She states that the greatest benefit of the system, in her opinion, is the reliability of the data VaxTrac generates using its biometric tool. “Now, I can vaccinate children with no mistakes because VaxTrac’s electronic data on their past vaccinations is trustworthy.” Additionally, she sees the merit of the electronic data in the future: “In 3 years, 10 years from now, I can very easily pull up the data from today using VaxTrac’s electronic system, and it will be reliable, useful data.”
True to her passion, Mrs. Henry is continuously envisioning better ways to help her patients. “I want many things for my clinic. I want more medical supplies. I want better facilities for my patients,” Mrs. Henry pauses to look at the patient consultation room, which is housed inside of her office, “But ultimately, I want to train the rest of the clinic staff on the VaxTrac system.”
When I first stepped off the airplane to descend into the balmy, humid night air of Cotonou, Benin, my immediate thought was that I had returned to the equally hot and sticky climate of my childhood home of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Throughout the next week, as I moved through the constant flurry of activity –from honking “ZimZim” taxi motorbikes to the cacophonic cries of tiny babies waiting for vaccinations and the soft murmurings of French (and echoing laughter) in the VaxTrac National Staff office—I began to fall slowly in love with this city so far from my home.
The majority of my time in Benin was spent on an information mapping project, in which I worked closely with Thibaut, one of VaxTrac’s technicians, to identify all of the paper vaccination records and stock reports currently utilized in Benin’s health system.
At each clinic, Thibaut and I would inquire about reports used and attempt to collect physical copies or photographs of paper forms in order to begin to piece together the purpose of each report and each report’s differentiated, complex journey to its final destination at the Benin Ministry of Health’s. Back in the Atlanta office, Anita and I have started to construct a process map of each report’s progression to the Ministry of Health in order to identify redundant reports and, in turn, to flag information in the paper records that we could add to the VaxTrac’s electronic system in order to eliminate inefficiency.
Additionally, I visited clinics in the nearby town of Porto Novo with the VaxTrac National Staff in order to implement our revised health worker scorecard tools, which will help standardize clinical practices across health districts. During these clinic visits, I also was given the chance to use my rusty French knowledge to interview health workers about their opinion on the VaxTrac system in their clinic.
I was overjoyed to hear their positive responses, particularly when one health worker stated that he has motivated all of his colleagues to become trained on the VaxTrac system because he believes in the reliability of its data and appreciates the quick speed at which the system retrieves electronic vaccination records.
To close out a wonderful and successful trip, Fidele Marc, our Africa Regional Coordinator, Jessi, and Regina, our new Administrative Coordinator and Finance Manager in Benin, and I took a day trip to the beach town of Ouidah. On our way, we stopped briefly at the Door of No Return, a memorial to the nearly 1,000,000 people from all over West Africa who were forced onto ships headed across the Atlantic to become slaves in the Americas. Standing on that monument and looking out at the ocean where all of those people had stared into the frightening unknown, I was floored. It was a gut-wrenching confrontation with the reality of one of the darkest points in human history. After a somber morning, we spent the rest of the day in the sun exploring the bustling marketplace nearby and walking along the shoreline. As Fidele Marc’s SUV jostled along dusty, deep orange roads on our way home that evening, I began hoping I could return to this country along the Atlantic in the very near future.
Hi! My name is Mary Michael McDuff, and I will be working as a program associate for VaxTrac this summer in VaxTrac’s new Atlanta office. I am a rising senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I am majoring in Health Policy and Management in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, with a minor in medical anthropology. I am so excited about being a program associate at VaxTrac this summer because I believe it will allow me to see firsthand what healthcare delivery looks like in a underserved population, and more importantly, how we can apply technological solutions to make this delivery more efficient and effective.
It has been an incredible whirlwind of a first week! After a few days of orientation at the VaxTrac office in Washington, D.C., the other program associate this summer, Anita, and I moved into our new office in Atlanta on Monday. We settled right in and began drafting our Scopes of Work, which detail the projects we will be working on together, and individually, over the course of the summer. For many of my projects, I will be working closely with VaxTrac’s Monitoring and Evaluation Manager, Jessi Hanson, to revise our baseline tools. One of my favorite projects I will be working on this summer is researching the role of fathers in the immunization process in Benin and how to get mothers who do not come to the clinics to want to bring their children in for immunizations. Later this week, I will be traveling to Benin with Jessi in order to complete our research in the field and to help implement the revised baseline tools. I cannot wait to visit the clinics in Benin and to see VaxTrac’s project sites firsthand.
As a team, Anita and I will work with Jessi to fully research the paper vaccination records currently used in Benin in order to make our technological record even more comprehensive. Anita and I will also be tackling the creation of project management tools and needs assessment tools to be used in VaxTrac’s upcoming projects as VaxTrac expands into new countries. I am grateful to be working for VaxTrac at such an exciting time because the organization is set to start new projects this summer in the countries of Indonesia and Nepal.
It will be a summer of collaborative research and of rethinking current strategies, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be a part of this dynamic, globally minded team!
Greetings from VaxTrac’s new office in Atlanta! My name is Anita Narayanan and I am one of VaxTrac’s program associates. As you will probably be seeing Mary Michael McDuff (the other program associate) and I post/tweet/Facebook over the next few months, it seems only fair that you know a little bit about me.
I was born and raised in Atlanta and moved to D.C. for my undergraduate degree where I majored in anthropology (specifically cultural and medical anthropology) at Georgetown University. During this time, I interned at a non-profit working on HIV/AIDS awareness in India, a small consulting firm whose primary client was the CDC, and in the private wealth management arm of a bank (I obviously took the “explore your options” advice to heart). After graduating, I moved to New York and began working full time with the same bank. For several years I enjoyed/survived the unique, high-stress environment, especially working in the industry during the financial crisis. After five years of working there, I started to feel the pull back my initial intellectual interest in healthcare. This led me to decide to head back to my hometown to get my MBA/MPH at Emory University.
I’ve just finished my first year in the program and knew I wanted to spend my summer working at an organization that focused on global health. I was lucky enough to hear about VaxTrac and very excited when I was hired as a program associate for the summer. We spent our first week training in D.C. where we learned about the organization, the projects we would be involved in, and got to know our awesome coworkers (through very entertaining team building exercises). It’s only my second week on the job, but I have already learned so much about healthcare delivery, vaccines, and fingerprint technology.
This summer, some of the projects I will be working on are to create a standardized needs assessment tool for planning future projects, analyze health worker practices to increase efficiency and identify best practices, and create a process map to streamline and consolidate record keeping techniques. All of these projects directly appeal to my interest in processes and systems management within the healthcare industry. This summer will give me the opportunity to learn about the inner workings of global health along with the new experience of working at a startup non-profit and traveling abroad to visit the health clinics first hand. I am excited to be working here and feel very lucky to work with such a great team! P.S.-Sadly, the dog in the picture is not mine, but I seem to have very few pictures of myself without a random dog with me (until I get a dog, I just make friends with people who have dogs and then spend more time with the dogs than my friends).