Augusta VA employee’s annual journey helps East Africa community - Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center
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Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center


Augusta VA employee’s annual journey helps East Africa community

July 7, 2017

 In a photo from January 2016, Anna Corulli stands outside the dispensary at the Ntirini parish in Tanzania. During her annual visits, Corulli has volunteered most of her time to the Ntirini Parish. (Courtesy Photo)
In a photo from January 2016, Anna Corulli stands outside the dispensary at the Ntirini parish in Tanzania. During her annual visits, Corulli has volunteered most of her time to the Ntirini Parish. (Courtesy Photo)

by Mark Karmin
Volunteer staff writer
Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- There are five core values VA employees are encouraged to follow to provide the best possible care to their patients: integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect, and excellence. One employee at Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia, is taking those values to new heights, specifically those of Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro.

Anna Corulli, a registered nurse at VA Augusta, first visited Tanzania in 2012 as a member of the nonprofit organization “Above and Beyond Cancer.” Members of the group climb some of the world’s tallest mountains, demonstrating to themselves and to others that cancer doesn’t have to take away survivors’ strength and accomplishment.

Corulli, a Veteran and retired U.S. Army colonel with 30 years of service accompanied her uncle after he’d gone into remission from prostate cancer. Also a cancer survivor, Corulli felt she should support him in Africa.

“Uncle Frank called me up and asked if I wanted to go. I have no residual effects from my cancer except not having a full thyroid, but I really wanted to be a help to my uncle and he was pushing 70 at the time. So we went together and had a great time. I mostly served on the medical team for the cancer survivors and the people that accompanied them.”

Not content to just climb the mountain and go home, Corulli and her uncle wanted to know how they could sponsor one of the communities at the foot of the mountain. They petitioned both local religious leaders and those in their home parish to provide each other moral support, with the U.S. community committing to providing material support in Tanzania.

“We visited the hospital, saw the conditions there, and asked what they needed. On the return flight, my uncle said ‘I want to do something.’ So, he wrote back to the Bishop of Moshi and said that he wanted his parish in Des Moines to become sister parishes with the poorest parish in that diocese.”

That parish turned out to be Ntirini parish, where Corulli has spent most of her time on subsequent trips to Africa.

“The bishop asked us not to just send money and aid. For us to get to know one another, he asked us to send people; to build lasting personal relationships.” In January of 2013, Corulli worked in one of the hospitals, providing medical support and collecting ideas for what we could do in the future.”

Discovering social divisions

Compared to much of Sub-Saharan Africa, Tanzania’s is peaceful. While it is a democracy and has never suffered a junta or coup, it still has internal social divisions that complicate philanthropism.

“We went to St. Francis boarding school for the disabled. In that part of the country local folklore leads to people with serious disabilities being objects of social stigma. Public school is free, but if you have any disabilities, they won’t accommodate. So they pull their kids out of public school and send them to boarding schools instead. And one of the handicaps that a child in Tanzania can have is being albino,” Corulli said.

Albinos in much of East Africa are at risk due to local superstitions that say burying a piece of their body on your property will provide magical benefits. Consequently, many are killed and their bodies sold. The government officially condemns the killings of albinos, but is unable to effectively stop them. Schools like St. Francis provide havens where albino children can be educated safely and normalize the condition for the next generation.

“The administrator wants to raise kids who see any disability, including albinism, as no big deal.”

There were two major concerns that occupied Corulli’s trip back to Tanzania in 2013: food and access to basic health care.

“We decided that first year we would work on food and getting a basic dispensary set up, because there was really no health care set up in that area [of Ntirini parish] … that year we ended up providing around 500,000 meals,” Corulli said.

 Avelina "Zubi" Zubieta, an assistant nurse manager, and Anna Corulli discuss the relationship-based care effort at Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia, July 7. (US Department of Veterans Affairs photo by Seth McDougal)
Avelina "Zubi" Zubieta, an assistant nurse manager, and Anna Corulli discuss the relationship-based care effort at Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia, July 7. (US Department of Veterans Affairs photo by Seth McDougal)

Hard to find docs, nurses

Tanzania has one of the lowest proportions of trained medical professionals to population of any country on Earth. A 2013 report by the World Health Organization indicates there are only 3.1 doctors per 100,000 Tanzanians — about 1,550 for the entire country of 50 million.

“You go to the hospitals and there’s dust everywhere.”

Corulli believes much of the problem can be attributed to “brain drain,” where conditions in a country make it desirable for highly educated professionals to leave to improve their standard of living.

“They have a really hard time retaining medical staff. Most doctors aren’t paid very well, and their national pension fund dried up years ago, so physicians go abroad for better opportunities.”

Corulli sees local partnership and engagement as vital to the project’s success.

“I see these huge, beautiful churches built in town — but they’re empty. Those buildings fall into disrepair and people move on because it wasn’t really theirs. Any system has to be maintained by the people of that community. The people, as poor as they are, have to contribute. I was at one of the dispensaries we set up recently, and watched women taking huge rocks and smashing them together until they had made gravel. The poured their hearts into that site — and it’ll really be theirs.”

Corulli and her team make sure that all material sent to Moshi is utile. Unlike those churches that sit and rot, she provides things that can be maintained by local Tanzanians, will be used until they can be cheaply replaced, and significantly affect people’s quality of life. 

Helping create clean water

“The potable water systems we’ve set up are pretty easy to keep running; we train locals how to operate and troubleshoot them, and replacement parts are pretty cheap. It’s important to me that what we set up is high-impact and low cost.”

A huge part of what Corulli and her team try to do is improve the availability of clean water, especially to children. Part of that process involves making water accessible and making the people who need it trust that it is safe.

“We set up these big water filters which have micro-fiber filters to screen out pathogens and particulates. In Tanzania, a lot of people boil their water, and our filters didn’t need to do that so at first the children at St. Francis were a little suspicious of it. But when they saw us drink from it, they trusted that it was safe. The people who maintain the filters at the school send me data on how many children are sick with a GI disease, so I have some real data on how our water plan is working,” Corulli said.

Corulli said in 2013, more than 10 percent of the kids couldn’t attend class for any given day, since then that number has dropped to zero.

Despite endemic poverty, growing sectarian tensions, and a weak central government, Corulli said she had hope for Tanzania’s future.

“They value education, and their literacy rate is very high. I’ve noticed that the young people are very politically aware as well, so I think the next generation has a shot of really improving the country.”

World Bank and UNESCO data shows that since 1990 the literacy rate in Tanzania has gone from 61 to 80 percent — higher than seven of the 8 nations it borders. Secondary education has also seen a rise from 14 to 24 percent, meaning there are more better educated Tanzanians than ever before.

Corulli’s trips to Tanzania are usually about two weeks long, but she has said that in the future she would like to spend more time there training medical staff and providing humanitarian aid.

“I’d love to go over there and spend three months training and helping people. Maybe when I retire I’ll have the time. In the meantime, I strongly encourage others to go; you don’t need to a nurse or doctor either, if you go, they’ll find you something to do.”

Bringing it back to the VA

Corulli has been touched by her time with the Tanzanian people; despite poverty and hardship, she finds some things in their lives worth bringing back home, and to her job at the VA.

“Coming back, I’m definitely a more caring and compassionate person with my Veteran patients. It’s not just people in Africa suffering who need help; when I come home I use that same energy and drive to improve Veterans’ lives as well,” Corulli said.

“In Tanzania, they have a culture there of really caring and loving for one another in a way you just don’t find in the states. There’s a tradition there that if you’ve wronged someone and they refuse to speak with you to resolve it, you can give them a special plant and they must forgive you. When people go away, they leave decorations up over their door to signal ‘I’m gone, but whatever I have you can use.’ When someone in a local community needs something, the other members provide it if they’re able. It’s a really beautiful thing. Being there encourages me to be a better person here.”

(Karmin is a volunteer with Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center. To become a volunteer and better the lives of Veterans at our medical center, call our Voluntary Services team at 706-733-0188 ext. 3020)