A woman in blue scrubs (Sandberg) stands next to another woman in blue scrubs wearing a stethoscope. they are standing outside of a small building labeled "pediatric ward." a local woman with a baby is walking into the building.
Dr. Michelle Sandberg (right) at the Kakuma refugee camp hospital

Lessons from practicing medicine in a refugee camp

It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done — and I can’t wait to do it again.

Last year, I deployed to Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp for a medical mission with IsraAid, an Israel-based nongovernmental humanitarian aid agency that responds to emergency crises and engages in long-term international development around the world.

The Kakuma camp, and its associated Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement, is the world’s second-largest refugee camp, with a population of 185,449 registered refugees and asylum-seekers according to 2018 United Nations data.

I didn’t know what to expect — I’m a pediatrician in the Bay Area and had never been to a refugee camp before — but I knew I wanted to help.

Along with my fellow doctors on the mission, one from the U.S. and another from Tel Aviv, we set out to stretch our limited resources as widely as we could. We provided desperately needed health care to children, trained medical staff in Kakuma’s local hospitals and clinics, and learned a lot along the way.

The local health care providers, many of whom are trained in Nairobi or other cities and serve in Kakuma for one to three years, are incredibly dedicated and accomplish all they can with limited resources, working long hours and seeing 70 to100 patients daily. There are many challenges. For example, even though infections are the most common reason for admission to the hospital in Kakuma, the supply of antibiotics is limited. The facilities do not have basic laboratory and microbiology-testing capabilities. There’s even a limited availability of soap and hand sanitizer in the hospitals and clinics, and the water supply is shut off intermittently.

Dr. Michelle Sandberg treats a patient at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.
Dr. Michelle Sandberg treats a patient at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

We experienced many scenarios that we never would have encountered in America. One night, we treated a baby who was born in respiratory distress. No physician was at the hospital at that hour, and the local nurse on duty was covering so many sick patients that she couldn’t stay to take care of the newborn. It was sobering to see how resource-strapped the Kakuma hospitals are, especially when emergencies arise.

At that moment, trying to help, I was 10,000 miles away from home, but I felt closer to my place in this world than ever before — as a human being, as a professional, and as a Jew. After all, we know what it’s like to be refugees from virtually every country on earth. How can we ignore others suffering in a similar situation?

The residents of Kakuma had never met a Jew or Israeli before, and the same is true for many other locations worldwide where IsraAid provides humanitarian assistance. I was so proud to be an ambassador for the Jewish people and spread goodwill and awareness of Israel’s positive values in the world.

Returning home was a culture shock. I landed at San Francisco International Airport and noticed dozens of options for bottled waters, sparkling waters, sodas, juices, etc. In Kakuma, refugees worry about having adequate clean water and experience intermittent periods of drought. Many own one item of tattered clothing and do not have shoes; some pay for medical services by trading in their goats. This experience reinforced the concept that one’s fate — including access to medical care, education and a stable income — is often dictated by where one is born.

I’m excited that IsraAid is launching a new network to train professionals in humanitarian work, to help our fellow human beings in need. I’m looking forward to attending a session, meeting like-minded peers and gaining new disaster-relief knowledge.

Empowered with that knowledge, I plan to make a return trip to Kakuma, to reinforce the life-changing perspective I gained the first time and to once again fill urgent gaps in medical care.

Whether at home or abroad, I’ll be ready to help.

Michelle Sandberg
Michelle Sandberg

Dr. Michelle Sandberg lives in Atherton and is a pediatrician.