- Grove City, Pennsylvania

April 12, 2013

Local nurse goes on mission

By Felicia A. Petro/Senior Reporter

LIBERTY — A local nurse went on a special mission to one of the poorest countries in the world with medical supplies collected between her and two doctors for 10 years.

Sally Gargasz, 59, of Liberty Township, who has been a nurse at Grove City Medical Center for 38 years, took a trip with Dr. Andrew Cole, a general practitioner, and his wife, Yao, an ophthalmologist, to their home country of Liberia in January.

Cole had formerly worked in the emergency room at the Pine Township hospital but now practices in New Castle. His wife is only licensed to practice in Liberia.

The couple came to the U.S. 24 years ago when Liberia broke out into a civil war, and hadn't seen their country until the recent trip.

"They practiced in what they call the 'up country' of Liberia," Gargasz said. "He built a hospital there and had to leave it, and heard it was destroyed."

The war ended in 2003, but the Coles haven't been able to return to their homeland until this year. "I told him if he ever goes back I'd like to go to a Third World country. It's an interest I had since I was very young," Gargasz said.

So they saved and saved and saved until the right time came along. They shipped nine blue barrels of medical supplies they collected over 10 years - including instruments they "cleaned and saved" and unopened items that were "outdated," Gargasz said. 

"We had it all planned out."

With the unreliable mail system, Dr. Cole had the barrels shipped from New Jersey.

"This man had a big container taking things to Liberia," Gargasz said, then the physician Gargasz and the Coles stayed with in Monrovia, Dr. Ivan Comano, had a driver pick up the barrels.

"They were waiting for us for a month," she added. Yao also shipped 10 cases of water for the three of them when they reached Liberia. "People who live there get used to (the water) and don't get sick from it, but it's not really safe," Gargasz said. All the homes have bathrooms, but no running water due to the war.

Dr. Comano heads the HIV program for the country's  health department; his wife, Kornor, works for the education department. Each of them make $1,000 a month, which is "a lot of money there," Gargasz said.

Their hosts provided breakfast and an evening meal. "They didn't have much, and were relatively well to do," Gargasz said. "The only dessert was a piece of fruit. They had an apple one night for us to split, because apples don't grow there."

Pineapples, mangoes and bananas were in season, which were eaten every day with rice and occasional fish. "They don't get much meat or dairy products. There isn't a lot to eat there," she said.

The country's infrastructure was also destroyed from the war. There are no paved roads and electricity. Monrovia, the capitol, has "spotty electricity," Gargasz said.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia "is a personal friend of Yao," Gargasz said. The two attended college and played tennis together.

"Under Sirleaf, they've got a lot more stable government," she added. "It's relatively safe now, but UN forces are still there because of extreme poverty and starvation, and it's a potentially volatile situation."

Since the minister of health is a good friends of the Coles, the group was given a government vehicle and a large Liberian driver named Paypay, so the police didn't stop them at roadblocks set up to accept bribes. "The police there are very corrupt. They are very underpaid," Gargasz said. The unemployment rate is 85 percent in Liberia, she added.

They visited hospitals in Yao's hometown of Ganta, which was located in a United Methodist Church mission, took 12 hours to reach in 170 miles. "The UMC is very involved in getting Liberia back on its feet," Gargasz said. "We stayed in mission compound."

Yao looked at some patients with eye problems. Dr. Cole mostly did consultation work. The main thing was to send supplies and fact find.

The Coles had several family members killed in the war. "We found several graves of Yao's family members. It was very emotional," Gargasz said.

Another emotional trip for the team was the trip to the hospital Dr. Cole built 28 years ago in Kolahun, at the Guinea border, before he and Yao married.

There are barely any roads there, and the town had been mainly burned by rebels and somewhat rebuilt. Dr. Cole wanted to find home he and Yao built when they married, and "someone on the street took us right with it," Gargasz said. It was overgrown by the jungle, but people who worked at the hospital "took it on themselves to remove the brush," she said. "It was 24 years idle, but still has a foundation."

The Coles had left in a short period when they heard the rebels were coming to their town; in fact, the soldiers stayed in the Cole house and killed those who didn't leave the village, including doctors and nurses. "There was no one to take care of rebels that were hurt," Gargasz said.

The makeshift hospital that replaced Dr. Cole's was busy. One of the former buildings remained in back of it, which said, "The end of the road." Dr. Cole built it and the rebels didn't burn it because it was a morgue and "they were afraid of dead bodies," Gargasz said.

Four of the blue barrels were left at Dr. Cole's hospital; the other five, at the hospital in Yao's hometown.

The small team then drove to Dr. Cole's birthplace, in the remote village of Fahmgalahum, where he spent the first 12 years of his life.

"They were so overwhelmed and thrilled they would come back to this tiny village," Gargasz said. "We went into chief's hut and I felt I stepped back 100 years in time."

Dr. Cole found the graves of his mother and sister, who survived the war and only died a few years ago. "She had been in a refugee camp and was taken back to village and had a stroke. That was an emotional day."

Dr. Cole and Yao were both children of a chief. In those days, chiefs had many wives and your siblings were full-blooded relatives.

The couple filled out application to be professors at university attached to JFK Hospital in Monrovia. 

Liberia is one of the few countries colonized by Americans in the early 1800s, and it's where freed slaves were sent after the Civil War. Liberians are well versed on American culture and name their buildings after Americans.

"There's a Barack Obama school. They love him," Gargasz said.

Unlike her, the nurses in Liberia are often unpaid and hope to get a government job to get paid. "The country desperately needs doctors," Gargasz said.

The Coles hope to return in three years after their children are through college. "They want to go home," she said. Dr. Cole has a family practice in New Castle, works at the Ellwood City Hospital emergency room, and UPMC Urgent Care in Shenango Valley.

At 73, "Now he has a new goal," Gargasz said.

Yao had the same transformation to rebuild Liberia, but almost didn't go because she feared what dead relatives she'd find from the war, Gargasz said.

For the local nurse, it was a trip of a lifetime.

"I've traveled before and been out of country, but never like this," Gargasz said. "When I came back home I said I'd never do again. I was away from family almost three full weeks. I now feel I'd like to go back someday to see what progress they make."

She and the Coles now have contacts for sending supplies in the future, as well as cell phone numbers to contact people.

There's a new wish list of requests, like a pulse oximeter to measure oxygen levels in blood and walking sticks for blind children.

Gargasz would also be happy to speak to groups about her adventure to bring awareness and help to Liberia. She's already spoke to her mother's church in Blacktown. "They took up collection to send to Liberia," she said.

She never felt like an outsider or afraid, although "a couple of times, I'm glad we had Paypay," she said.

"I envied their simplicity of life. They have very little and want very little. They are very content. They don't complain. I work in emergency room and so many people are unhappy and impatient, I go there and people wait hours and days.

"They're happy to get care. I felt very comfortable with these people."

Published March 30, 2013, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.