You don’t see a floating hospital every day,” commented Malak Morris, a 62-year-old porter, while holding his nine-year-old daughter Lamis in his arms.
Morris has been knocking on doors and going to all the relevant clinics and every hospital in Aswan trying to get better treatment for his fourth child who has been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy that hit her when she was only three years old.
“She used to walk, but as time passed, she lost all her sensation, and now she cannot eat, drink, walk, talk or even hold anything,” added Morris, who hoped to find treatment on the area’s new floating hospital.
Getting his daughter medicine from the pharmacy outside the ship, he smiled and waved good-bye to the volunteers standing nearby.
Though the floating hospital did not have a neurosurgeon on board this time, Morris was promised that he could see a specialist in Cairo where he could get treatment for his child. Meanwhile, he needed to make sure his daughter got a nutritious diet.
The floating hospital Morris went to is the first of its kind in Egypt and the Middle East. It was originally a Nile cruise ship that was transformed into a hospital with subsidiary clinics, an X-Ray and diagnostics unit, a laboratory, a pharmacy and other facilities, in addition to a team of specialised doctors and nurses.
Sailing from Aswan, the hospital opened its doors to all children between the ages of two and 14 last week, where it diagnosed and checked more than 10,000 children in its first week alone.
“The children came from various areas in Aswan, Kom Ombo, Esna and the Nubian villages nearby. Although we did not expect such a large number, we are more than happy to serve them,” said Sherine Abu Hussein, the deputy manager of the project.
The project has been launched by Rotary District 2451. Its main objective lies in preventing children from experiencing preventable problems at an early age, “because if you prevent them at this age, they will have a normal life afterwards,” Abu Hussein said.
The project was left in the drawers of Rotary 2451 for three years, in the hope that it could see the light sometime in the future. Finally last year, the Rotary district governor Abdel-Hamid Al-Awa took the plunge to start the project and a protocol was signed last November.
The project is live testimony of how helpful and supportive people can be in Egypt. “One might not expect, for example, that one pharmaceutical company could provide more than a million medical drugs and supplies for free, but it magically happens, and such has been the case with our partners,” Abu Hussein told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The project aims at providing a large database so the medical sector can analyse which governorates and towns are suffering from what and on what scale.
During the examination of the children last week, “we realised, for example, that many people are suffering from neurological problems. There is a shocking number of people with disabilities in Aswan. Many people are suffering from anaemia from poor nutrition,” she added.
“After we finish our tour of eight governorates, we are going to analyse the results and produce the first large database of children in Upper Egypt.”
The project originated in an idea by Rotary Club members Ingy Monib and Sherif Ali Abdel-Aal who wished to establish medical services for people in Upper Egypt for long periods of time. They wanted to establish a hospital that would travel through Egypt from the north to the south and vice versa, “but anything on the road would be too expensive and too tiring,” they commented.
Thus, they asked themselves what connected all Egyptians. The answer was the “beautiful River Nile that connects people everywhere. It is the Nile that carries all the goodness of Egypt within its banks.
Hence, the idea came to life when the idea was proposed to partners who welcomed it heartily,” Abu Hussein added.
Thought the project’s budget is around LE25 million, this was not all in the form of money, but also in medical supplies, drugs, equipment, scans, laboratory items, and more.
“Doctors, nurses, specialists, and pharmacists flew miles voluntarily, donating their time and effort to come to Aswan and take part in the project,” Mervat Bakri, manager of Rotary San Stefano, told the Weekly.
“We are living our dreams. We dreamt of this project serving the largest number of people. Now we are dreaming of its continuity and sustainability,” she said.
It has seen the largest collaboration ever in the medical sector in Egypt. Many governmental and non-governmental institutions have taken part, including the Ministry of Health, the Tahya Masr Fund, the Masr Al-Kheir Foundation, Al-Tayebi Pharmacies, I Lab, Eye Care, the United Nations Population Fund, the Banque du Caire, the Pharco Pharmaceutical Company and many others.
“Goodness brings goodness, and we are hoping to see an Egypt without disease. People here need us to stay for around two weeks, not only one week, but we have to sail to Luxor where people are waiting for us, however,” added Bakri, known as “the dynamo” of the project and serving the most vulnerable for almost 15 years.
“We are happy to collaborate with Rotary Egypt in this project,” said Kamal Helmi, manager of Dar Al-Eyoon Aswan, one of the project partners.
He had been working in the eye clinic inside the cruise ship for around eight hours, almost overwhelmed by patients who flocked there throughout the week.
“What is different in this project is that there is complete collaboration between different medical specialists. Any patient who might be checked by ophthalmology, for example, might then be transferred to oncology. Many patients can go from one clinic to another without having problems,” he added.
Dar Al-Eyoon has supplied the project with all the medical equipment needed for eye examinations and the necessary medicines. Some of its staff offered their help and support in diagnosing patients.
“From early inspections, we realised that many people in Aswan suffer from cataracts and glaucoma. Diabetes is widely spread among the children at frightening rates that may affect the retina and can sometimes cause visual impairment and blindness,” Helmi added.
The project also included young people from Egypt who helped in organising and scheduling the programme of each day. Young people also came from Brazil and Japan. They are volunteers in Rotary Clubs in their own countries and came to Egypt as volunteers to serve worldwide.
Two young people, Utah from Japan and Ciao from Brazil, could be seen taking photographs, smiling, carrying heavy objects, and filling cups with water and juice for the queues of children and families waiting for their turn.
“It is the first time I have seen a hospital on a boat. I think it is a beautiful project, but there are lots of things to improve, and this is why we are here. We need to improve it until it arrives in Giza, our final destination, where it should be perfect. We should work on more sustainable operations,” Utah said, who wanted people in Japan to know about this project and to see what they could do to prevent people in other countries from suffering.
Ciao, from Brazil, said that “I can see people’s faces are smiling and looking forward to being seen and for people to take care of them, just like in Brazil, which is also a poor country. I feel the need to make people’s lives better.”
Yasmine Saad is an Egyptian youth volunteer often seen running from one clinic to another inside the cruise ship. Saad is a student at the Nursing Institute in Aswan, and she is one of 12 nurses chosen by the institute’s dean to help in the project.
“It is my first time taking part in Rotary projects, and I would like to be a member of any Rotary Club to offer my help and support to any project that can serve my community,” she said.
“At first, I was nervous dealing with different people from various parts of Egypt. I’m more familiar with Aswan, and I do not know doctors from Cairo or Alexandria and how we are likely to work together. But thankfully, all the doctors and Rotarians were very collaborative and very nice,” she said.
“The prices of clinics and hospitals in Aswan have been soaring because of a lack of doctors. Many come from nearby cities like Sohag, Assiut and Qena to reside for a while, but then they leave to return to their cities,” Saad added. “People in Aswan are very poor, and we have seen many families receiving treatment for the first time in their lives.”
The ship, where thousands of patients are treated at no charge, is the flagship and headquarters of a much larger enterprise with a number of pharmacies, laboratories, hospitals, optical companies and clinics throughout Egypt.
Children seen on it do not only receive a diagnosis, but also a complete medical check-up that includes a blood test, a complete blood picture, and a physical examination. Afterwards, the general practitioner may direct them to a specialist.
In addition to medical care, the project helps to raise awareness among children and mothers on how to reduce the risks of diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
The Floating Hospital
The story began last year when project manager Monib discussed it with Skapetic Travel. After a few months, an agreement had been found.
“The project is new and out of the box, but it is totally applicable and we were willing to launch it together,” Ahmed Tawfik, manager of Skapetic Travel and of the ship, said.
Tawfik has spent 32 years on Nile cruisers. To prepare this ship, he had to transform entire rooms into clinics and laboratories.
He believes that this project will change people’s thinking about a Nile cruise. “A Nile cruise will not be seen solely as a hotel or a restaurant, but it can now also be seen as a hospital.
I hope that this will boost medical tourism in Aswan. By using floating hospitals, we could treat asthma patients and host people to spend time on ship for treatment,” he said.
Meanwhile, the first floating hospital will continue sailing for 60 days up and down the Nile, targeting mainly women and children in Upper Egypt and touring eight governorates from Aswan to Luxor, Qena, Sohag, Assiut, Minya, Beni Sweif, and Giza.
* All Photos by Ameera Fouad
* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Hospital cruising the Nile