Dr. Kay Wotton of Gibsons is an amazing woman. She’s gone places and made changes in the world that most of us can only dream of. From the time she left university in Winnipeg, Wotton has put her medical skills to practical use in Canada, Africa and Pakistan.
After graduating in 1972 Wotton went to our country’s far North as a general practitioner for many years, but she always had the desire to help further afield.
“I had always wanted to go to Uganda, but I thought you had to be super doc to work in Africa. When I got up North I really liked working with Aboriginal people ,so I stayed 10 years. In the meantime I got a specialty in community medicine and then worked three years in Labrador,” Wotton explained.
But she never forgot her desire to make a difference in Africa. Post Idi Amin doctors were urgently needed in Uganda. Wotton, through the auspices of the Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO), ended up in the war-torn country.
“They needed a worker in the community, so I booked for three months and then agreed to another three months and finally ended up staying three and a half years in all,” she said.
At that time the African Medical Research Foundation had 16 training schools in Uganda.
“They were in decrepit condition, the latrines were deplorable. The people cooked on stoves next to pit latrines. You can’t have sewage next to food. We worked to change those conditions,” she related.
Her next overseas work came in a country she calls her favourite — Ethiopia. Her post there came through McGill University in Montreal, a break she considered lucky.
“Ordinarily NGO (non-government organizations) salaries are in the $2,000 per month range, McGill paid in the $60,000 to $80,000 range per year. They also paid for transport. I got to go all over Ethiopia,” she said.
The country worked its magic on Wotton.
“It’s cut off from the world. There was frankincense everywhere. The smells and the beautiful countryside were incredible,” she remembered.
As ever it was the health of the citizens that continued to draw the compassionate doctor.
“In public health we’re after souls,” is her succinct description of the attraction she has to working in some of the most deplorable areas of the Earth.
For Wotton that means working with the local people to teach good health and sanitation habits in ways the locals can understand.
For instance she worked as a trainer through the University of Manitoba on a sexually transmitted disease (STD) project in Nairobi, Kenya.
“There we trained doctors and nurses to treat STDs with a syndromatic approach. We used a flow chart to teach people. It was ‘do this if this is present’ and so on down the chart,” Wotton described.
There were few drugs available in the country and prevention became a top priority. A lesson Wotton believes could hold relevance in the fight against AIDS.
“You can’t fix any disease without fixing the underlying conditions,” she said.
Once back in Canada Wotton spent four years as a medical health officer (MHO) in Dolphin, Manitoba. And then in 1998 she was chief executive officer as well as MHO in Dawson Creek. After four-plus years the job was decentralized and Wotton left with the severance pay that enabled her to expand on her love of helping people.
When a program called Health Child Uganda managed to score “big bucks” Wotton became involved in educating community owned resource persons or CORPs, as they’re known to go into communities to train others.
“It is a community-based curriculum. It ‘s easy to measure the impact. There was a 40 per cent decrease in death over two years from 2006 to 2008,” Wotton advised.
And one of the best parts of the program in Wotton’s opinion is the 85 per cent retention rate of the trained health workers over nine years.
Because she knew the program would have to be self-sufficient she worried how the workers would fund it. An answer came in a win-win form. The workers began to grow orange sweet potatoes.
“They were healthier (than the previous type grown) and a source of income,” Wotton said.
In addition to hands-on training Wotton realized a need for manuals that could be easily accessible to the participants. The books, written by Wotton and Jenn Brenner, can be downloaded for free. A bonus in a country where “computers are getting like phones, everyone has one,” according to Wotton. Whimsical drawings by Ugandan artist, Bonaventure Nyotumba add charm to the literature. The people are mostly verbal and these easy-to-read books are a boon to the locals.
Although Wotton has been to Pakistan several times for the past few years she’s been unable to travel there because of concerns for her safety. But that doesn’t stop her from helping the country. Through her connections there she’s able to bypass the usual money grabbers to get aid dollars into the hands of the local citizens.
Next up for Wotton is Uganda in October. And while there’s no formal agenda for what she’ll be doing then you can be sure of one thing — as always the medical community will be better off when she leaves.