Kyla Arama delivers live-saving care in West Africa

This story was published in the Spring-Summer 2021 issue of The Washington Nurse magazine.

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Kyla (far right), The Bridge of Hope volunteers and onsite medical staff pose outside Sierra Leone’s first snakebite treatment center.

Every day, Washington state nurses dedicate themselves to providing excep­tional care in their own commu­ni­ties. But for Kyla Arama, a neonatal ICU regis­tered nurse at the Univer­sity of Washington Medical Center (UWMC) and WSNA member, patient care doesn’t stop after she clocks out from her night shift in the NICU. For the past 13 years, Kyla has also worked to improve the health of patients thousands of miles away from Seattle.

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Kyla shows off a snakebite informational poster with Chief Health Officer Dr. Lamin Serry (pictured here with Kyla). Dr. Serry is pivotal to the success of the snakebite treatment center and frequently travels from village to village on his motorcycle to talk to residents about snakebite care.

As a volun­teer for the nonprofit organi­za­tion The Bridge of Hope, Kyla has helped create a self-sustain­able medical system in Sierra Leone, a devel­oping country on the south­west coast of West Africa. As Head of Medical Programs, Kyla partners with local health­care providers in Sierra Leone to imple­ment a frame­work for preven­ta­tive care and encourage healthy habits through education.

Right before COVID-19 reached West Africa in February 2020, Kyla and five Seattle-area nurses (including WSNA members Casie Lamp and Rachel Murray) traveled to Sierra Leone to help deliver care and estab­lish the country’s first snakebite treat­ment center.

We recently sat down with Kyla to learn more about her volunteerism.

What inspired you to start volunteering? #

When I was 16 years old, a nonprofit organi­za­tion that does work in West Africa visited my church [The Bridge of Hope]. My mom, who is a NICU nurse at Swedish Issaquah, wanted to go and provide medical assis­tance at a bush medical clinic there. She brought me along with her on the trip, and I loved it. After that experi­ence, I devel­oped a passion for health care in devel­oping countries.

I later went on to attend nursing school at the Univer­sity of Washington and started taking annual trips to Sierra Leone through The Bridge of Hope.

Tell me about your work establishing the first snakebite treatment center in Sierra Leone. How did that come about? #

In addition to providing curative and preven­ta­tive medical care in the two clinics we’ve estab­lished in the country, we also regularly meet with commu­nity members to ask what health needs they have. During one of my trips there, many of them mentioned they don’t have access to medical treat­ment for snakebites — which are very common in Sierra Leone and often­times deadly if left untreated. In fact, the World Health Organi­za­tion (WHO) named snakebite poisoning as a neglected tropical disease in 2018.

When I returned to the U.S., I began researching how to treat snakebites. That’s when I stumbled upon Ascle­pius Snakebite Founda­tion (ASF), which is a Seattle nonprofit that addresses the snakebite crisis across the devel­oping world. Almost two years ago, I partnered with ASF to create a snakebite training program for the health care workers in our clinics in Sierra Leone. In the begin­ning of 2020, we traveled to the country to help estab­lish a new snakebite clinic and directly train the workers on how to best treat snakebites.

Since February 2020, the clinic has treated 51 snakebite patients and saved count­less lives in the process.

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The team of volunteers and onsite medical staff hold a meeting at the snakebite treatment center.

What is the most challenging aspect of treating snakebites in West Africa? #

Most snakebites in Sierra Leone occur in bush villages, where treat­ment is often sought from a natural healer in the commu­nity — which won’t effec­tively treat snakebites. It can be frustrating sometimes, but we must remain mindful that Sierra Leone has a completely different health care system than the U.S. As an organi­za­tion, we want to honor and respect the local culture, while encour­aging health outcomes that benefit the community.

Having access to good, sustain­able antivenom is also a challenge to find in devel­oping countries because they often don’t have access to cold storage or refrig­er­a­tors. The best antivenom we could obtain was a recon­sti­tutable powder we imported from France.

What’s the most rewarding aspect? #

Seeing our staff members in Sierra Leone provide excep­tional care to snakebite patients. They are so passionate about this work and love being able to provide snakebite treat­ment for members of their commu­nity. That’s really the ultimate goal of our work: to ensure health care workers there are trained and equipped to deliver long-term, sustain­able health care. They are still in regular contact with us and let us know whenever they get a new snakebite case. They’re crushing it!

With so many health dispar­i­ties in West Africa, it feels good to know we’re finally making a dent in something.

What’s next for you and The Bridge of Hope? #

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The Bridge of Hope finances emergency surgeries for patients in its Sierra Leone clinics. Here, Kyla poses with one of her inguinal hernia surgery patients.

Since Africa has closed its borders to outsiders due to COVID-19, we won’t be going back this year — and probably not in 2022. Unfor­tu­nately, WHO predicts that devel­oping countries most likely won’t have widespread access to a COVID-19 vaccine until 2024.

In the meantime, we’ve reached out to UNICEF and offered them use of our bush clinics when the vaccine arrives. Our onsite medical staff is trained to admin­ister vaccines, and we have a gener­ator to provide the continued power needed to store and refrig­erate vaccines.

Since water access is also a huge problem in Sierra Leone, we are currently working on getting more wells drilled throughout the country to encourage more handwashing and limit the spread of COVID-19.

What advice do you have for other nurses who want to become more involved in a cause that’s important to them? #

When I became Head of Medical Programs at The Bridge of Hope, I didn’t know if we would be able to meet the needs of the commu­nity in Sierra Leone. But I learned that if you put the time and energy into the work, and find the right partners to help you, anything is possible.

If nurses see a problem in health care, whether here in Washington or in a devel­oping country, we have the power to fix it!