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Here In Africa: Health For The People – Philophela

...Experienced and sympathetic translators are always on hand to ease the fears of patients unused to medical procedures and every member of staff has experienced a catch in the throat at the end of a successful operation to see the joy and happiness of a sufferer when their pain has been eased...

Barbara Durlacher tells of a train which brings expert medical help to people living in remote country districts in South Africa.

Philophela. A word which has a particular significance for rural communities in South Africa’s isolated country districts. Meaning good, clean health in seSotho, it is the name of the first and only healthcare train in the world. Originally formed from three-coaches, the train was the brainchild of the parastatal organisation Transnet, which operates South Africa’s railway services. Today’s train now comprises sixteen refurbished coaches, including a kitchen, a laundry, and a pharmacy, and provides clinics for routine examinations; dental care, psychological help and medication and two consulting rooms.

As the delicate operating instruments have to be protected from any damage during the long journeys, a great deal of care went into designing special buffering systems to prevent them suffering unexpected shocks. Now certain items are mounted on gimbals which allow them to move with the movements of the train while others are specially reinforced and ballasted. This has been an important achievement and was necessary to solve a very difficult problem.

Later, as the concept of the health train became better known other organisations joined in, and now student volunteers work alongside fifteen fulltime staff to provide basic healthcare services to many rural areas. In the refurbished coaches, a group of 25 volunteers teach basic health issues and also conduct relatively simple operations such as cataract removal and dental procedures. The aim of the staff of Philophela is to promote basic health awareness together with educating the communities in the dangers of HIV and AIDS.

One of the most important requirements of the train is a reliable power source, and a specially designed power car generates enough electricity to supply a small town for two weeks. In the case of the train, however, it provides the power for the medical equipment as well as the kitchen, the washing machines, tumble dryers and items for personal care and hygiene such as electric irons and power shavers. In addition to the facilities listed above, the train has a dining car seating forty and the kitchen can serve up to 200 meals a day. There are sleeping compartments for the staff and two consulting rooms which, when necessary, double up as edu-care rooms.

Operating for thirty-six weeks a year the arrival of the train is eagerly awaited, and by the time it reaches a scheduled stop, word soon spreads amongst the community and a long queue forms. Within minutes and with the patience of rural people all over Africa, they sit under the awnings chatting and exchanging news and experiences until it is their turn to see the medical staff. Experienced and sympathetic translators are always on hand to ease the fears of patients unused to medical procedures and every member of staff has experienced a catch in the throat at the end of a successful operation to see the joy and happiness of a sufferer when their pain has been eased.

When one hears the expressions of joy and wonder from a former cataract sufferer blind for years as they lift up their eyes and exclaim, “I didn’t know there were mountains!” or, “My son, my son, I can see you again!” all the effort involved with running this project is more than rewarded by the gratitude of the people who have been helped.

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