Gamm describes serving needy in Africa

NEW ULM – Dr. Laurel Gamm usually works in the emergency room at New Ulm Medical Center. On Saturday she talked about how six months of service last year with Doctors Without Borders in the Central African Republic (CAR) satisfied her thirst for adventure and then some at the 25th Annual Women’s History Luncheon at Turner Hall.

“Life has been interesting. When I was younger, I dreamed of being a bush pilot,” Gamm said during a slide show. The show depicted her work in a 45-bed hospital, treating children sick with malaria, respiratory and intestinal illnesses, tetanus, tropical infestations, malnutrition and other ailments rare in the U.S. She worked in the Central African Republic (CAR), one of the least-developed countries in the world.

Her mission was to improve the care of children under the age of five. Twenty percent of the children in the CAR don’t live past that age.

“The hospital beds were always full of kids, often pitifully ill, some with no blood sugar. People would walk 12 miles or more to the primitive hospital when they got sick. The rutted roads made it dangerous to walk at night. There are no lights. Power from electrical generators goes off at 10 p.m.,” said Gamm, describing her work shared with a dozen French doctors and nurses.

Gamm said very few diagnostic tests were available. A good share of her time was spent doing blood transfusions.

The CAR, Gamm said, is has been unstable since it gained independence from France in 1958. There are about eight doctors for every 100,000 people in CAR.

“It was 90 degrees and humid during the day, but I wore boots, long pants and long-sleeve shirts to protect myself from malaria (spread by) mosquitoes. I slept in a bed surrounded by a mosquito net,” Gamm said. “Malaria, which kills one million people a year there now, was common in Minnesota 100 years ago.”

Gamm said she often found herself laughing, then crying at the condition some of her patients were in when they arrived at the hospital. She found some solace in a solar-powered fan that provided some relief from the heat and humidity.

“I got respiratory illnesses three times, but I never got seriously ill,” Gamm said. “That would have required a 12-hour trip to the nearest emergency room.”

The Women’s History Luncheon honored several other local women who have worked providing health care to others in need. Honorees at the luncheon were Gamm, Lori Burkhart, Judy Kastman, Anna Koeckeritz, Carol Koeckeritz, Diane Lambrecht, Lisa Monroe, the late Hazel Mickelson, Monica Mueller, Kathy Runck, Carol Ryberg, Kristin Schweiss, Nancy Thomas, Dr. Ellen Vancura and Marlys Zetah.

Lambrecht, the Koeckeritzes, Monroe, Runck, Schweiss and Thomas learned how to do eye exams and took optical equipment and other public health skills and supplies to a small village in Tanzania. They continue to support the village’s well being since they returned home.

Registered nurses Mueller, Kastman and Zetah went to New York City as Red Cross volunteers after Hurricane Sandy. They worked 12-hour days aiding those in need. Zetah made four other trips to disaster areas, including New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Mickelson served in World War II as a U.S. Army nurse and prepared an aid station for the Nuremberg Trials. She and her daughter Kristin managed a Bangladesh clinic for the malnourished. Hazel Mickelson, who died last year, volunteered as a medical nurse in Guatemala and New Mexico.

Vancura learned Spanish so she could communicate with patients during two trips to the Dominican Republic where she mentored Creighton University medical students. She worked at an outpatient clinic in San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala.

Ryberg served as a volunteer nurse in the mountains of Ecuador and Nicaragua during a time of political unrest, providing immunizations, surgical care and educational materials.

Burkhart spent two weeks as a recovery room nurse with Mercy Ships in Sierra Leone, Africa. She worked with corrective procedures, many caused by congenital problems or as a result of civil unrest violence.

For more information, visit Doctors Without Borders at

Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at

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