The Founder: Anita Smith MBE, MRG
Hi, my name is Anita Smith and I live in a picturesque village in the heart of England with my husband, Steve. Our three children have now all left home and this now allows me the time to devote all of my waking hours to my beloved Bansang hospital. This total commitment is only possible because I have the full support of my husband, Steve.
In 1992 we visited the Gambia for our family holiday. This was our first visit to Africa and it wasn't the weather or the beaches that made this holiday so special, it was the Gambian people. They were so friendly and welcoming and it made our stay in their country so memorable. However little did I realise that two events that were completely unconnected, during this holiday, would change my life forever.
Myself and my 10 year old daughter, Alexia, visited the children's ward of the nearby Royal Victoria Hospital to deliver some toys that Alexia wished to give to the children. We were shocked to see so many infants in the crowded wards and one little girl in particular caught our attention. She sat in her cot and looked at us with a most beautiful smile. A nurse explained that the staff of the ward had named her Jayna when she arrived as an abandoned infant, six months before.
The hospital staff had established that her parents, in their ignorance, had unintentionally permanently crippled her. To restrict their daughter from crawling out of the family compound, whilst they were away searching for food, they had placed a heavy concrete slab onto her legs. This one desperate act had irreparably damaged her legs and eventually left her crippled from the waist down. As her condition deteriorated the parents realised that they would be unable to cope and eventually abandoned her.
During Jayna's six months on the ward she received neither visitors nor rehabilitation for her injuries and the nursing staff, working under so much constant pressure, were unable to spend any quality time with her. The hospital could offer this crippled little girl nothing, they had no specialist facilities to treat such injuries, they didn't even have a wheel chair for her. Her days were very long, lonely and frustrating as she had no pencils, paper or toys to occupy her mind.
We visited Jayna as often as we could and during these visits we frequently witnessed the desperate staff treating tragic cases on the ward with nothing more than words of sympathy. Shortages of vital equipment and necessary medications reduced their roles, in many cases, to mere powerless observers.
As the holiday drew to a close we became more attached to Jayna but equally we became more distressed at the prospect of saying goodbye to her for the last time. It was devastating to consider that we would probably be the last visitors that she would ever see. The sights of the sand and sea that we had we had introduced her to would soon become just memories for poor little Jayna.
That last visit was so desperately sad, seeing her smiling face from the cot, as we walked out of the door for the very last time was shattering.
One evening, a 'holiday friend', Sue, declared that she had been in a lot of pain and clearly needed to see the doctor urgently. The doctor referred her to the hospital where an ectopic pregnancy was diagnosed. If her life was to be saved, emergency surgery needed to be performed immediately thus ruling out the option of her returning to the UK for the procedure to be carried out.
The life saving operation was to be performed, within hours of the diagnosis, at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Sue's worst nightmare had come true, she was going to receive emergency surgery in a third world hospital.
It was an unnerving experience for myself and Steve, when we entered the overcrowded ward to visit Sue, following her operation. We were confronted by a sea of faces where it was almost impossible to determine who were staff, who were patients and who were visitors.
All traditional fittings and equipment that you associate with a hospital were non existent, no bedside oxygen, no bedside cabinets, no privacy curtains just row upon row of excruciatingly uncomfortable bed, nothing more nothing less.
You did not need to be trained in health care matters to recognise that this hospital was working way beyond the limit of its effectiveness. The lack of the most basic surgical equipment was clear to see and perfectly demonstrated by Sue's husband, Dave, acting as a drip stand, they did not have enough drip stands to go round.
Sue commented that the lack of nursing staff had meant that Dave, since his arrival on the ward some hours earlier, had taken over the drip stand duty. This shortage of staff was so evident when we eventually realised that most patients were being cared for by their desperate families, with minimal help from the nursing staff.
We later learned that in many of the cases on the ward the nurses were unable to do more to help due to shortages of vital equipment and necessary medications. This was a mirror image of the same set of harrowing problems that I had witnessed on the children's ward during my many visits to Jayna.
Sue, after a few days, arrived back at the hotel, following her successful surgery and was full of praise for the care that she had received. She could not believe how the staff were able to cope and yet be so professional and caring considering the constant pressure and heart break that they were subjected to during every working day.
I had now witnessed, first hand, just how tough and unrelenting life was within the health service. Patients, families and staff endured levels of stress and discomfort that I did not realise existed and it was extremely obvious that this small countries health service was struggling to cope with the ever increasing demands on its over stretched resources.
The journey to the airport was a devastating experience. I felt so guilty returning to my privileged life, leaving behind those desperate people on the wards fighting for survival. I was especially troubled by the recurring thoughts of Jayna, on her own in that lonely little cot.
I knew I had to do doing something to help.
On our return home I set to work, but where on earth should I start and how on earth should I proceed. I had to phone somebody for advice but who should I contact, who would know what I should do next.......
This is a picture of my family taken shortly after we returned from our holiday to the Gambia in 1992.
Fortunately one of the very first phone calls that I made was to, Terry Palmer, the author of a guide book to The Gambia that we had used whilst on holiday. He had written, in some detail, about a hospital in his book and was obviously reasonably knowledgeable on the workings of the Gambian Health Service.
He listened intently to my story and was full of praise for my good intentions to help the Royal Victoria Hospital. However he expressed his grave concern that I was focussing my efforts on the wrong hospital and suggested that I should turn my attentions to the hospital mentioned in his book. Of the Bansang Hospital, he simply said, 'if you think the Royal Victoria needs help, go and visit the hospital in Bansang it is a 100 times worse'.
Terry had visited all areas of the Gambia whilst compiling his guide book and had wept openly when he saw the desperate conditions within the wards, especially the children's ward at the Bansang Hospital.
That phone conversation enabled me to compile a basic plan of action of how I would help the patients of the Bansang Hospital and especially the poor little children who clearly were suffering terrible hardship on the paediatric ward.
Those first series of phone calls, requesting out of date surplus equipment, from local hospitals, libraries, dental practices, doctors practices and pharmacies were met with little or no response at all. Getting a positive response was proving to be a very slow, frustrating and at times bewildering task.
The pitiful selection of items donated in those first weeks wouldn't fill a quarter of my planned 40 foot container. However persistence eventually did pay off and my phone calls were now being returned and a genuine interest was slowly building.
The quality and quantity of donated items increased until eventually there was enough to fill that first 40 foot container. That container was shipped late in the summer of 1992, thus reaffirming my original promise that I had made to myself, I would help these desperate people whatever it took.
I was definitely on my way ~ there was no turning back now!
Bansang Hospital Appeal a UK registered charity ~ 1064469