Amy Lehman is a former exotic dancer, now maverick doctor who hopes to build a floating hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The project would launch a boat especially built with operating rooms, intensive care facilities and a small inpatient ward on Lake Tanganyika, home to some of the most isolated communities in the world. The floating hospital has the potential to transform the lives of many people, not just through medical treatment but also through education and empowerment. In principle, the project sounds great but the challenge now is to raise $30 million to get the boat built. It’s a lot of money but Amy is determined.
Lake Tanganyika is possibly one of the most beautiful places on Earth. It sits on the borders of four different countries: DRC, Tanzania Burundi and Zambia and is the world’s longest lake at 416 miles long. It holds nearly 1/5th of the world’s available fresh water and is home to at least 1500 different species of organisms - a biodiversity hotspot.
Despite Lake Tanganyika’s beauty and significance, the region has suffered a lot over the past twenty years. Extreme poverty, war and political instability have slowed down the rate of infrastructural investment. Roads are poor to non-existent, transport is crap and medical facilities are basic, to say the least. So when one of the estimated 12 million people living in the basin need health care, they’ve got a tough job finding it.
Whilst visiting Lake Tanganyika on vacation, Amy saw this reality first hand. Having been interested in Sub Saharan Africa since her teenage years she’d organised a trip to Tanzania, visiting Lake Tanganyika to see its beauty. Arriving on the eastern shore, Amy decided to take what was meant to be an idyllic boat ride up the coast. The experience turned into a baptism of fire as a typhoon hit her and the other passengers and they became stranded. Not knowing how she was going to get out of there, Amy saw the reality for local people. “That’s when I thought of a floating health clinic.”
Amy did manage to leave the basin but the experience was so interesting and compelling that she decided to return and make the idea real. The water-based hospital would bypass the need for land access to communities by reaching them via the lake. It sounds like a magic bullet but Amy is fully aware that this is no simple task. “There’s a lot going on and it’s very complex. There’s definitely a lot of human suffering but the first thing I had to do was learn about the Lake Tanganyika basin.”
She set up The Lake Tanganyika Floating Health Clinic, a registered charity in Tanzania since 2008, with the aim of building the floating hospital on a strong foundation of knowledge and experience. The clinic has taken a grassroots approach to building a floating hospital by researching as much about the basin as possible and learning about health care delivery through practice over the past 5 years.
Already the charity has begun combatting the worst regional health problems. In 2013, the DRC was named “toughest place to be a mother” with the risk of dying from maternal causes at 1 in 30 compared to Finland’s risk at 1 in 12,200. The charity has looked to combat this issue through education, prenatal clinics and giving family planning services as part of an outreach project to isolated communities, traveling out to them in a dilapidated WWI German warship.
As part of the programme, Doctors have also worked to treat the high rate of obstetric fistula – a medical condition where a hole develops between the vagina and the rectum during a prolonged and difficult childbirth. The condition has horrific physical and social consequences. Women can’t help but leak urine and faeces from the resulting hole and the dampness leads to them developing infections and rashes. The smell makes them outcastes and they are often driven to begging and prostitution to support themselves.
Amy’s organisation has however, demonstrated their ability to combat this problem. By taking affected women via boat to medical facilities on the Tanzanian coast they have been able to provide reconstructive surgery - a life changing operation that has a high success rate. The women return home to their families able to lead a more normal life.
This is just one example of the work carried out by The Lake Tanganyika Floating Health Clinic. Others include a malaria outreach programme, a project to improve local communication and plans are in place to begin an electronic record of patients’ history – a vital reference for future medical help.
Amy’s vision is becoming more and more real and the next step is to begin building the floating hospital. Designs are finished and the boat will include two operating rooms so that, rather than journeying across for hours to medical facilities on land, people can be treated onboard. The ability to provide intensive care and an inpatient ward will also mean a whole range of problems can be treated affectively. Educational facilities will also mean that local health workers around the lake can learn the latest medical procedures. Even when the boat moves on to a different location, the people left will still be better prepared to cope with health problems. The project has the potential to save many lives and raise the general standard of health way above what it is now. The only barrier is money.
The minimum cost of the boat has been estimated at $30 million. It’s a considerable sum, but when you consider the floating clinic has the potential to serve 12 million people over an extensive period of time. In Amy’s words “you do the cost effectiveness analysis and this is not expensive.”
As a former erotic dancer, Amy isn’t scared of taking a risk. She’s a capable Doctor, tenacious entrepreneur and - with a Lake Tanganyika tattoo covering her entire back – dedicated to this incredible location in Africa. Boat or no boat, she’s definitely going to create some waves.