By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Redefining A Dream
Local Pediatrician Seeks Support For African Hospital
Placeholder Image
Even doctors have dreams.
For Oakdale pediatrician Dr. Krystyna Belski, a childhood dream of traveling to Kilimanjaro has now taken on a new life. The land she once dreamed of visiting, she now hopes to help.
“Since I was a young girl in Poland it was my dream to go on Kilimanjaro,” the doctor shared. “I watched the movie, I read the book. It was so exotic for me.”
In early spring of 2007 Dr. Belski, along with her husband Andrzej and son Mark, then 21, traveled to Africa for an extended vacation. As a celebration of the doctor’s birthday, the family had plans of hiking Mount Kilimanjaro and later joining family and friends for a two-week safari through Africa.
The family had journeyed to Africa for a once in a lifetime family vacation. This was not to be a professional visit, surveying hospitals and the country’s medical needs. It was not a faith-based trip, with a mission as its purpose. This was a vacation planned by a woman fulfilling a childhood dream in the company of her family and friends.
The Belski family knew the hike up Kilimanjaro was not one for the ill prepared. Equipped with appropriate clothing and aligned with a guide group to help them reach the summit, their four-day trek spanning 22 miles began.
There are several different routes that one can take to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. The Belskis opted for the Marangu trek, which features huts and campsites along the climb. While accommodations may have made the resting period comfortable, the trek is one that gains elevation quickly. The actual elevation of Mt. Kilimanjaro is 5,891 meters (19,330 feet).
Deemed as an ‘easy climb’ by some, it is the varying altitude, as well as extreme weather conditions, that can pose the largest problem. Altitude sickness is common and climbers are expected to typically experience shortness of breath, hypothermia and headaches. Due to its location and varying elevations, every type of climate can be expected while trekking to Kilimanjaro’s peak, including a year round snow topped summit.
“We were very prepared,” Belski shared, noting that they had packed appropriate clothing and gear for their varying degrees of weather, including warm gloves and heavy clothing.
“At about 13,000 feet elevation we began taking altitude medication,” she added.
Kibo would be the last campsite stop before the family made its final ascent to the summit. Their final trek would begin in the dark, at midnight, as it is tradition to reach the summit by sunrise. It’s an experience one could only imagine to be breathtaking, as well as memorable.
Approximately five hours into the final climb, Belski’s childhood dream was unexpectedly shattered.
“After five hours of hiking in stormy weather, with strong winds, snow and freezing temperatures, I slipped and fell onto some rocks,” the doctor said.
Her right foot, she added, became stuck between two rocks, and as she tried to pull her foot out, her foot stayed stationary and she fell to the ground.
“I felt that something terrible happened,” she said of the injury to her leg as a result of the fall. “I knew it was definitely broken.”
As she lay there in excruciating pain, the family quickly learned the only way down was the same way they had come up. Emergency service to the summit did not exist. The guides would have to carry her back to their last camp, where she was able to take what little Advil she had brought with her and better immobilize the makeshift splint her husband had created with an ace bandage, hiking poles and shoelaces.
Upon reaching the initial camp of Marangu, she was placed on a one-wheel stretcher and placed in a truck, which took her to Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center. The time was now 7 p.m.
A journey that had taken a healthy Belski four days to traverse, took 14 hours to descend with a serious injury and no medical attention.
Aware of the country’s AIDS epidemic, Belski shared that her primary concern upon being admitted to the hospital was the facility’s use of disposable needles. While they were able to accommodate her with that request, they were unable to administer any pain medication since the hospital supply had run out.
Following review of her X-ray, it became apparent her leg would need to be re-set and cast.
“I had to undergo fracture realignment without pain medication,” Belski said, adding that due to the swelling, her leg could not be placed in a cast for several days.
While Belski was grateful for all the people who assisted her — and her husband — throughout the ordeal, it was the condition of the hospital and its amenities that most moved her.
Belski recalled observing what appeared to be 20 to 30 people to a room, as she was wheeled to her semi-private room from emergency. The experience still visibly stirs up emotion two years later.
During her stay at the hospital, she became acquainted with Father Salutaris Mawazo. According to Belski, the priest shared that he felt she had been sent to them by angels.
What was apparent to Belski, was confirmed by the priest; the hospital needed help. Their resources were few and needs high.
Everyday necessities like soap, toilet paper and towels, which many Americans take for granted, were non-existent at the hospital. In fact, Belski said, toilet paper is actually what was used to serve as the barrier between her skin and the plaster, when the casting process was finally performed.
Due to travel restrictions and peak travel time, Belski was unable to return to the U.S. until her originally planned return date, which was two weeks after her injury occurred.
Once home, she met with an orthopedist and learned her recovery would not be as quick as the pint-sized patients she sees on a daily basis in her practice. Her prognosis was a six-month recovery time with little mobility.
As her body began to heal, her mind was never far from Father Mawazo and the needs of the hospital. The two kept in touch through telephone and letter writing. Eventually, Father Mawazo provided Belski with a list of pediatric needs for the hospital. It was a list of equipment and supplies, which Dr. Belski and many of her colleagues have been able to fulfill.
Through the help and guidance of Dr. Mark Cook and Neil Hudson, Belski has learned that the transport of the items — not the procurement of them — will be where the largest expense lies. Not to mention the hospital has expressed a need for a four-wheel drive vehicle to help navigate the rough terrain and reach patients safely and efficiently.
“The cost of the container (for shipment of supplies) is between $6,000 and $8,000,” Belski said.
“Dr. Cook is familiar with the process (of shipment), so he has been helping me,” she added. “If we can get some support from the community, I think this can happen.”
Recognizing that people are more inclined to make donations to non-profit organizations rather than individuals, Dr. Belski has aligned with the Oakdale Rotary Club, which has granted her permission to utilize their Oakdale Rotary Foundation for the purpose of her fundraising to get the equipment and supplies to Africa. All donations made to the project should be made to the Oakdale Rotary Foundation, with ‘Dr. Belski’s Africa Project’ in the notation. The Foundation maintains the 501c(3) status, which allows donors to take advantage of the tax benefits.
The doctor is not only grateful, but humbled by the help she has received thus far from groups like the Oakdale Rotary Club and individuals, such as Dr. Cook and Mr. Hudson willing to help her realize a new dream.
“I’ve seen very, very poor places. But what I’ve seen …” she said, trailing off at the memory of time spent in the faraway hospital.
The experience of visiting Mt. Kilimanjaro may have been a childhood dream for the doctor, but the unexpected medical emergency and her stay at the African hospital undoubtedly has changed her.
“That night,” she continued, referring to her hospital stay, “I remember somebody screaming. I’m sure it was probably in pain.”
To contribute to Dr. Belski’s Africa Project, checks should be made payable to Oakdale Rotary Foundation with notation of the project. Checks may be sent to: Krystyna Belski, M.D., 1425 West H St., Suite 330, Oakdale, CA 95361 or Susan Mendieta, Oak Valley Hospital District Marketing/Public Relations, 350 South Oak Ave., Oakdale, CA  95361.