August 22, 2017

Column: Connecticut Charity Devoted to Uplifting African Villages

Editor’s Note: Local resident Tom Soboleski has written several great stories exclusively for LymeLine.com and ValleyNewsNow.com, so when we saw this compelling story by him in the New Haven Register on March 24, we requested their permission to republish it. Having received that permission, we are now pleased to republish this important story here.

Gathering water in Africa. Courtesy Water Works for Africa

Imagine you could not take a shower every day – because there is no water.

Imagine brushing your teeth without water.

Imagine you had no faucet in your house – because there is no water nearby.

Gathering water in Africa. Courtesy Water Works for Africa

Imagine walking two miles and standing in lines with fights breaking out to obtain whatever water you could. Then carrying it back home in jugs weighing 41 pounds. And the water is dirty and likely has bacteria.

You might say you’d never live there. But some people have no choice. This is their homeland. You might ask why don’t they move. To understand, you’d have to be in their shoes.

These are the conditions in villages of the Chikwawa district, in southern Malawi, Africa. There are numerous villages throughout Malawi in the same circumstances. The time and energy required to obtain life’s most basic need consumes daily life. It is traditional in their culture for women and children to fetch the water. This typically can take four to five hours a day. Men stay home to tend their meager gardens and livestock.

The water, when it’s available, is in shallow wells about 5 to 6 feet square and of similar depth. Because it’s basically in open pits, livestock and wild animals also drink from it. They have no other source. They may also urinate or defecate in or near it. So any water collected has to be boiled before it can be used for drinking, cooking or bathing.

A charity based in New Haven, Malawi Farmers Inc., has dedicated itself to bringing reliable, clean water to the villages of Chikwawa. Formed last year, MFI’s core mission is to help lift these villagers out of poverty. Providing them a source of sustainable, safe water would have a huge impact on village life. Drinking, cooking and washing would no longer be risky. It would allow kids to stay in school and fathers to get jobs. It would mean plentiful crops and healthier livestock. It would mean they could sell crops and create better living conditions.

“You can’t do anything without water,” says Sam Powell, president of Malawi Farmers Inc. The villagers of Chikwawa “are stricken not only with a drought,” he says, “but when they have water, it’s unreliable in terms of it’s not always available or only in limited amounts. The surface water is contaminated. They don’t have deep-water wells. The water’s unhealthy, there’s no sanitation there. There’s animal refuse and human waste.”

There is ample clean water deep underground, but the lack of technology and economic wherewithal prevents it from being tapped. “The water is there,” Powell says. “They can’t access it.”

MFI is working with another non-profit, Water Wells for Africa, or WWFA, based in California, which will identify well locations and hire contractors in Africa to do the drilling and installation. “We’ve partnered up with them,” Powell says, “because they have the expertise in the drilling, the topography, the government’s situation.”

WWFA has been installing wells in Africa for 20 years. Once a well is installed, they will also train local villagers on how to maintain and repair it. Designing it to be rugged enough to not break down is a prime consideration, given that parts would not be readily available in a remote village. “The type of well we want to drill is deep, it’s sustainable,” Powell says. “It’s mechanical, it’s not digital, it doesn’t require any electricity.”

Powell became aware of the water crisis in southern Malawi through his work at the Connecticut Hospice in Branford, where he’s been volunteering for several years. Three years ago a new chaplain, the Rev Austin Phiri, was assigned to the hospice. Austin is a native of the village of Chokani and came to the U.S. six years ago, he says, “because I wanted to experience a different way of doing ministry.”

Father Austin says the water crisis in his country is acute but the Malawi government provides little help. “Every day in my country the people complain we have no running water. The government depends on donors from outside,” to address infrastructure problems, he says. “At the moment there are a number of problems the government is facing. The government is completely broke.”

Appeals to the United Nations have been unsuccessful, Austin says. Proposals have been submitted but the response is always that the UN is involved in innumerable projects and it is unable to help.

Malawi is a land-locked country about the size of Pennsylvania, with a population of nearly 13 million. Annual per capita income was $340 in 2015 according to the World Bank. “In these desperately poor areas of low density and subsistence farming,” Austin says, “it’s less than that. A dollar a day is a lot of money there.”

People begin standing in line at 3 a.m.. “We are so hopeful that there will be a day when things will be improved in my home village,” he says. “They won’t be fighting to get water. There’s always fighting because everybody wants to get good water.”

During the dry season from May to October, there is virtually no rainfall in Malawi. Contaminated water is a leading cause of diarrhea, dysentery and cholera, contributing to nearly 9,000 deaths per year, including 4,500 children under 5, according to the World Bank. Worldwide, diarrhea diseases contribute to more than a million deaths per year of children under 5, according to UNICEF.

Powell says that working with Austin at the hospice and listening to his stories inspired him to do something. “For several years we have been talking about how desperate the plight of those people are. A lot of families are occupying hours and hours and hours of their day just sourcing out water and not doing anything else that’s productive. The infusion of a few dollars in Malawi to drill a simple well – so people can at least water their gardens and drink a glass of clean healthy water – will have a startling effect.”

MFI’s ambition goes well beyond a few wells. It has partnered with a farmer’s group in Malawi to coordinate efforts and identify the most acute needs. Once villages have sustainable healthy water, MFI plans to advise villagers on ways to become more efficient and productive with their farming and upgrade their tools and methods. “This will allow for marketing their crops to produce income,” Powell says. “Right now it’s subsistence farming. Eventually, hopefully with a rich water supply, they will be able to generate income so that their standard of living will rise.”

Through appeals to friends and family, MFI has raised enough money to drill its first well in the village of Chokani during the upcoming dry season. The average cost of a deep water well is $7500, but that can vary widely depending on the local geography, the depth, and the underground geology. The group is holding its first fundraiser, an Italian dinner with entertainment, on March 19 at St. Paul’s Church Hall in West Haven, CT. Tickets can be purchased directly from their website through this link.

Water is something the overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens take for granted. With a twist of your hand, it’s there on demand. For people in the villages of Chikwawa, that would be a luxury. Just installing a permanent well to pump clean water on demand, “will change their whole standard of living,” Powell says. “Their health, their longevity, their prospects for the future. You’ll be able to see the effects; you’ll be able to feel the effects, almost immediately. We have no paid staff. Every dollar that comes in to us will be for drilling.”

MFI is a 501c3 charity recognized by the state of Connecticut and the federal government.

For more information, go to www.malawifarmersinc.org.

Share

The Blue Oar: Enjoy a Tropical Feel at River Eatery in Haddam

Looking across the vibrant patio of 'The Blue Oar' towards the Connecticut River.

Looking across the vibrant patio of ‘The Blue Oar’ towards the Connecticut River.

The soft sunlight of a warm summer evening glistens off the gently flowing river as you sip wine at a pastel-colored picnic table while awaiting your Cajun catfish dinner. No, you’re not in Louisiana; you’re alongside the Connecticut River at the Blue Oar Restaurant in Haddam.

Now enjoying its 20th summer, the Blue Oar resembles more of a summer camp than a restaurant. Built on stilts to protect the kitchen from river floods, the yellow and white wooden structure resembles a children’s treetop playhouse. A trademark of the expansive dining grounds is the colored chairs and tables – pastels of lime green, melon, sky blue, tangerine and creamy yellow.  “It reminds people of the Caribbean or Florida,” says co-owner Jody Reilly. “There’s a relaxed vibe.” 

You can bring your own wine or beer, have a cheeseburger or hot dog with kraut, but your options go far beyond that.  The most popular sandwich is “the chicken, roasted pepper and cheddar,” says Reilly. “They seem to fly out of here. And also the ribs, chowder, and lobster rolls.”

A staple of fixed offerings is supplemented by a number of daily specials. Dinner entrees range from grilled salmon to Jamaican jerk BBQ pork loin. A recent Saturday night featured grilled Cajun catfish with black bean salsa and strips of grilled summer squash. The large fillet was just spicy enough and sat on a generous bed of cool black bean salsa that blended perfectly on the palate. A chilled Italian pinot grigio was the perfect accompaniment.

Appetizers are plentiful and varied. Sautéed mussels, seared scallops and fresh guacamole with house-made tortilla chips are just a few examples. If you’re looking for fried seafood, this isn’t your spot.

A view of 'The Blue Oar' from the Connecticut River.

A view of ‘The Blue Oar’ from the Connecticut River.

With docks along the river, arriving by boat is an option. “We’re a destination,” says Reilly. “A lot of people on boat trips for the day pull in from Sag Harbor or Greenport.”

On a bright, sunny evening, the Blue Oar has a distinct tropical feel. A good weather weekend can bring in up to 600 diners a day, says Reilly. There may be a line, but it moves along and provides conversation and entertainment. As waiters exit the tight kitchen, it resembles a bumper car arcade as they bob and weave through the order line that meanders out the door.

The Blue Oar is open seven days a week from Mother’s Day weekend through September, serving lunch and dinner from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Water and soda is available but all alcohol is BYOB.

Note: it is cash only. Credit and debit cards are not accepted. The Blue Oar is located off Rte. 154 about a mile-and-a-half north of exit 7 off Rte. 9. Look for the turn sign.

Share

Kicking Cancer: One Man’s Remarkable Victory Over the Pervasive Disease

dave old lyme sun

Dave Collins looks out over an Old Lyme sunrise — there was a time when he wondered how many more he might see.

On the cusp of spring in 2005, Dave Collins recalls looking out over the marsh in his Old Lyme backyard through tears early one morning and wondering, “How many more sunrises will I see?” This emotional moment was the culmination of a tumultuous one-week period during which a tumor was detected in Collins’ colon and it was confirmed that it had metastasized to his lungs and liver. He was told he had stage-4 colon cancer.  He was 48 years old.

Nine years later, Collins is in his sixth year of living cancer-free.  For him and his wife Kathy, the three-year ordeal of surgeries and treatments was grueling and stressful, but by sticking together and clinging to positive outlooks, along with the right treatments from good doctors, he beat the grim odds. And, by his own admission, he needed a dose of good luck.

His medical odyssey began in 2004, when Collins started to notice some blood during bowel movements.  An initial screening by medical practitioners speculated that, because it was a small amount and bright red, it was probably from hemorrhoids. The blood would only appear every couple of months, Collins says, so he kept monitoring it on his own. Then one day while at work in March of 2005, he experienced a sudden discharge of a significant quantity of blood through his rectum and left immediately to go to a doctor.

A sigmoidoscopy done on the spot in a gastroenterologist’s office identified a large tumor in the lower portion of his colon. Some blood was also drawn to measure its CEA level. [CEA (Carcinoembryonic antigen)is a type of protein molecule that can be present in different cells and a high level can be an indicator of a tumor.]

A few days later Collins went to the Middlesex Hospital’s clinic in Essex for a CAT scan and to get the results of his blood test. His blood revealed a distressing number. A normal range for CEA is 0-5. The level in Collins was 427. “The doctor said it was the highest level he had ever seen,” Collins recalls, continuing, “It indicated that there was a high chance that I had colon cancer.”

The CAT scan indentified more than two-dozen tumors in his liver. A biopsy confirmed cancer. A subsequent chest x-ray detected one tumor in each lung. “Talk about shock,” Kathy says, adding, “I was numb.”

“Initially, when we thought it was only in one location, we thought maybe this is something that’s beatable,” Collins remembers. “But when they said it was in both lungs and loaded in the liver, then we knew we were in trouble.” It really hit him hard when he asked his oncologist if he had other patients with the same diagnosis and he answered, “Yes, quite a few.”

When Collins asked how many of them survived, the doctor was evasive. “So I said to him, none of them made it, right?” And the doctor said quietly, “Correct.” Collins responded, “Well, I guess I’ll have to be your first one.”

“I still get chills when I think about that moment,” he says. “That was very emotional for me. That’s when we came home and just sat on the sofa and hugged each other and cried.”

“It was very surreal,” Kathy added. “Keep in mind all this was in the space of a week. It all occurred between March 17 and March 25 (2005).”

When asked if he felt defeated at that moment, Collins says, “I felt really scared at that point, and really emotional. I don’t think there was ever a time when I felt defeated, but I also never felt there was a time when I felt I’m going to beat this or felt cocky. We went into the mode of, let’s be smart about this, let’s play our cards as best as we possibly can.”

But Collins says he also felt a conflict between what he would think or say and what he felt in his heart. “I was trying to get myself on a mentally positive track. In my mind I was thinking I should try to be positive but my heart was not really believing that.”  Echoing that conundrum, Kathy added, “I don’t think either one of us wanted to accept that it couldn’t have a positive outcome.”

Kathy says that Dave’s oncologist, Dr. Robert Levy of Middlesex Hospital, was very honest with him. While he was never so blunt as to say Dave only had a short time left, he said that with cancers as advanced as his, there are no guarantees.

Right from the beginning, Kathy had the foresight to begin keeping a notebook and log, writing down everything as it was occurring. It became a running diary of the entire experience. Dr. Levy supported and enabled this, she said. Every visit to any doctor included note-taking so they would not have to rely on their memories once they got home; memories that were inevitably clouded by stress.

Collins says this was invaluable. “When you’re in an emotional state, it’s hard to remember or process the information that your doctors are giving you. A lot of times I would think the doctor said one thing, then Kathy’s notes would show something different. So it’s really important for someone to be with you and take notes.” Questions that either of them thought of between visits would also get jotted down immediately. “It was important for us,” Kathy says, “because it gave us a sense of control in a situation where we clearly had no control.”

Many Surgeries and Chemo Treatments

The steps to cure Collins’ cancer were a very prolonged, meticulous series of surgeries and treatments that began with removing the colon tumor in April 2005. A resection, as it’s called, removed about six inches of his lower colon where the tumor was and reattached the ends. That enabled his “plumbing,” as he puts it, to be put in good functioning order. A few weeks later he began a 10-month regimen of chemotherapy.

The chemo protocol was designed at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York to treat the extensive cancer cells throughout his body and keep them from spreading further. How his body reacted to this chemo would determine whether surgery could be performed on his liver and lungs. If it didn’t shrink some of his tumors, his condition would be terminal. Collins’ oncologist, Dr. Levy, says, “I have treated many stage-4 colorectal cancer patients. When the cancer has spread to both the liver and the lungs, surgery is typically not possible and the cancer is considered incurable.”

portable infusion pumpThroughout the 10 months, Collins wore a portable “fanny pack” in between treatments at an infusion center (see photo at left.) This contained the chemo drug and a small pump that fed a measured dose through a catheter into a port in his chest at regular intervals. With this pack attached, he began to exercise by jogging and riding an exercise bike.  [Implantable ports are very small ports that are surgically inserted under the skin that receive a catheter tube carrying the chemo drug.]  The chemo proved effective and a month after the treatments ended, Collins underwent surgery on his liver and lungs in March 2006.

A small tumor in one lung was killed with the chemo, but a larger one in the other lung required surgery to remove.  His liver had four tumors in the smaller left lobe. The right lobe had two-dozen tumors. The tumors in the left lobe were surgically removed. The right lobe was deemed inoperable. The only possible method of eliminating the pervasive tumors was a little-used procedure known as a liver resection. This required tying off the blood supply to the right lobe for a month, causing it to shrink and die. Such a procedure is possible because the liver will regenerate itself to compensate for the removed portion.

d_k_paris_river_seine_cropped

Dave and Kathy Collins share a winning smile.

The right lobe was removed from his body a month later, and soon Collins began to experience side effects from that procedure, including infections along the incision and fevers. This required frequent return visits to MSKCC over a three-month period. In between those visits, Collins’ wife Kathy, with some training from the nurses, became a de facto nurse. Twice a day she uncovered his dressings and carefully removed any infected bits of flesh, rinsed the incision, and repacked the dressing. Collins describes these session as pretty intense, comparing them to painful stabbing by a needle.

By the fall of 2006, the incision had healed and Collins found himself facing another nine-month round of chemo. Side effects during this period included, he recalls, “Hypersensitivity to cold, burning sensations in my fingers,” that could be triggered simply from grabbing a can of soda from the refrigerator. He also experienced random periods of numbness on the bottom of his feet that affected his balance. “If I closed my eyes, I would immediately fall over. To me this was humorous, not frightening.”

Determined to rebuild his physical condition despite his ordeal with chemo, Collins routinely jogged, rode an exercise bike, and even returned to the tennis court, a game he regularly played before the onset of his cancer.

But there was more. When another tumor was identified in his left lobe, a third liver surgery was necessary in February 2008. After that, yet another round of chemo went from March through September. This time it was injected by a pump similar in size to a hockey puck that was implanted under the skin on his belly.  This fed a highly concentrated dose directly into the liver and effectively put him into remission. Collins was told that if there is no recurrence over five years, the odds are good to stay cancer-free. If no recurrence after 10 years, it is unlikely that it will return. Now in his sixth cancer-free year, the odds are turning in his favor.

That wasn’t the end of his medical travails. During a visit with Dr. Levy, in June of 2010, a murmur was detected in Collins’ heart.  Further diagnosis found that one of the chordae, or “heart strings,” that help to control heart valve function, had broken. Medical opinion was this might have been a consequence of the intense chemo. This led to open-heart surgery in December 2010, at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, to repair the strings of the mitral and tricuspid valves. Since that time Collins has no murmur and no valve leakage.

Good Attitude, Good Doctors and Some Luck

Everyone has his or her own way of dealing with adversity. Throughout his arduous ordeal, while his wife sometimes prayed, Collins never followed suit. Instead, he drew hope from the study of scientific journals and medical Web sites — perhaps a result of his engineering background. He also attributes his successful recovery to a generous dose of good fortune and luck.  “It’s not all in doctor’s hands. Everyone had to play their cards as best they could and then hope for a successful outcome. There’s a huge element of luck. I was lucky to get exceptional doctors and lucky I responded well to chemo.”

To someone who is newly diagnosed or now beginning treatment, he urges studying and learning as much as you can. Find out where the ‘center of excellence’ facilities are and glean all you can from them. Establish which is the top hospital for your particular condition? Search the Internet for clinical trials of your specific form of cancer.

Collins continually reached out, asked questions and sought advice wherever he could. “I did a lot of research. I would ask each doctor to explain the reasoning for his approach. Don’t take your doctor as infallible. Don’t just rely on him. Do your own research and develop questions. If something does not make sense to you, challenge the doctor.”

He speculates that this extra effort might result in better care. “When doctors see how knowledgeable you are, they respect and appreciate it and may give your case a little extra thought and attention. I’m grateful, respectful, and appreciative of my doctors.”

Collins emphasizes that as important as the doctors are, having a personal caregiver and advocate is crucial. After talking for several hours with the Collins’s, it was clear that his wife’s loving care might have been as important as any doctor or treatment. Dave says the love and support that Kathy provided is immeasurable and this experience moved their relationship “to a new level and made us closer.”

“How beautiful is someone who sits beside you on a backless stool during five hours of chemo treatment – who attends to your every need and whim – treatment after treatment after treatment? How beautiful is someone who sleeps on a cot beside you in the hospital room – so as to be there – to not leave your side? How beautiful is someone who gives you foot massages and washes your hair and holds your arm when you can barely stand up and take a step? How beautiful is someone who does this continually for over four years, never once complaining – not once – who continually seems happy to do whatever will help get you through the day?”

“This total support from my wife spoke to me silently and continually – a wordless message that connected straight to my heart. It said: ‘I want you to recover, I want you to stay with me, I want you to come back to me and be with me.’ This message definitely got into my heart and I feel it somehow resonated with my DNA – creating sort of a well of strength or energy that I could continually draw from. I was many times physically depleted but I never once felt emotionally weak or defeated.”

Collins says that during the first few years of his battle, those sunrises became spiritual and precious. “I would sometimes get up early and watch sunrises like they were rare, sacred events. During this time, hearing the Cat Steven’s song Morning Has Broken was very emotional to me. Deep inside I realized that I very probably would not have the amount of time on earth that I wanted – that I thought I would have. [But] I never said anything to anyone about loving life or missing life or my fear of dying. I never let Kathy see me cry at a sunrise.”

“Now,” he says, “if I get angry or frustrated or moody, I simply tell myself: do you realize how lucky you are to be alive?”

Share