The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul’s LabMobile – Ghazir and Dora Conferences
Back in 2006, Lebanon’s National Council came up with the idea of bringing free medical services to people who were isolated in their villages in the aftermath of the July 2006 war. Aerial bombing destroyed roads to the south of the country, essentially forcing an embargo on the villages.
On 22 October 2006, we first provided medical services. Our team consisted of five physicians, two qualified nurses and two assistants, all volunteers. It took four hours to travel 115 km in order to reach the border village of Debel in southern Lebanon.
Once there, we offered the villagers physical check-ups and medicines, and shared their fears and concerns. We realised how useful just a few medical instruments could be. With only a stethoscope and blood pressure cuffs we were able to diagnose various disorders and warn people against conditions, which are sometimes silent, that had been undiagnosed and that could have had serious life-threatening consequences. At noon time, we shared a simple meal with them: “Maling” sandwiches (made with canned luncheon meat). According to a colleague, it had been more than 40 years since he last ate it, and it was the best thing ever.
Our mission was a great success for the local population as well as for the team, so much so, that we were ready to do it again in another southern border village.
Our second mission took place a month later with the same impact and the same impression on the team. Being with these people revealed to us that there was a great need for medical services, so we decided to conduct missions in other villages, this time in the northern and eastern parts of the country, on Bekaa valley. As a matter of fact, screening for these chronic illnesses, which often evolve at low-noise levels, can prevent more serious accidents leading to permanent or partial disability. These physical disabilities can often lead to work stoppage and loss of household income. The purpose of our medical missions was to advise people before they reached that stage. Behavioural change, thanks to prevention and medical treatment, could help reduce one of the potential causes of poverty.
During these sessions, we brought along a lab instrument to perform blood tests for glycaemia, lipid profiles and creatinine levels. We found these tests most useful in diagnosing chronic diseases. People who were fasting waited impatiently for us in the morning. Whenever we arrived, there was a crowd of people waiting to get their blood tested. Our biggest challenge was to get the results quickly. If a result was abnormal, the patient was immediately examined by a medical specialist.
Whether they were from Saint Marc Conference (Dora), a working class and poor section in the northern suburb of Beirut; from Ghazir, a village in the Lebanese mountains; or villagers from Saint Joseph Conference in the Keserwan region on Mount Liban, we realised that the people we serve in our conferences also need free blood testing, since 44% of the Lebanese population has no medical coverage. According to a survey on household living conditions carried out by the Central Administration of Statistics (CAS), Lebanese people spend nearly $1.15 billion each year on medicines and blood tests, which accounts for 46 % of the health system’s expenditure. For low-income households, this represents up to 13 % of their budget.
On the other hand, around a third of the Lebanese population (1.5 million people) live below the poverty threshold, earning less than USD 4 per day, hence being unable to meet their basic needs.
This request to provide the local population with free blood testing, and the impact of these check-ups in our many missions, particularly on the prevention of diseases and their related complications, prompted us to launch the Labmobile project in November 2018 during a Charity dinner organised by Saint Marc Conference.
The purpose of the project is to fight against the so-called “medical deserts”. These deserts are understandable from a geographic standpoint but also in terms of time. The project consists of purchasing a van equipped with a lab bench, overhead lighting, a blood-collection chair, lab instruments and an alternative source ensuring autonomy for the equipment, thus allowing the team to work in remote areas.
The mobile laboratory allows people to obtain their blood results almost immediately so that the physician can see them right away. With this service, we can take samples at home of those who are bedridden and unable to move around.
This laboratory, easy to set up and move about, includes blood collection kits. The tests are the same as those in conventional laboratories, but they are chosen for their easy use. The objective is twofold: Preventive medicine for serious or even silent diseases (diabetes, dyslipidemia, anaemia…); and rapid diagnose of common but serious diseases in poverty-stricken populations living in remote villages and neighbourhoods.
The Labmobile was officially launched at a Charity dinner in June 2019 organised by Ghazir Conference.
The project is doubly innovative in its concept: a medical lab which can be moved anywhere in the country when needed, offering a specialised public health service, and a funding method resulting from collaborative efforts at a local and international level.
The Labmobile provides a very specialised medical service that requires knowledge and hands-on know-how provided by a team of experts (medical specialists, laboratory professionals) as well as equipment to achieve the goals of our mission.
We have set up a computer database to collect patients’ demographic data and for reporting purposes. We systematically take each patient’s blood pressure. This database could ultimately serve as a national public health epidemiological study. For each mission, we choose one or two diseases for screening such as diabetes, dyslipidemia, hepatitis, prostate disorders, anaemia…
This medical service has proven its worth on each mission; even if it means detecting only one case of hypertension, diabetes or dyslipidaemia out of forty patients, monitoring diabetes with a HbA1C test, warning a man in his fifties about his high PSA levels, detecting signs of hepatitis B in a young person when there is a vaccination against this disease, or finding iron-deficiency anaemia in a lactating mother who came to the LabMobile after hearing about a SSVP medical team coming to the village at Sunday mass, where the priest prompted people to sign up for this medical campaign.
We are now the village’s event. Everyone gets ready to welcome us. They put up billboards at the village entrance, make the appointments and welcome people. When we arrive after a long journey, they are there to greet us with coffee before starting our work. Often we meet either in a parish hall in front of a church, or at the local Saint Vincent de Paul Conference site, or at the Red Cross site.
We park the LabMobile at the site entrance and begin taking samples, doing check-ups and examining patients. We spend a whole day with them and then share a meal together. This is the moment where we can relax before heading back home, with our hearts full of nice memories, joy and especially the hope of seeing each other again. And at the end of each day, we get the same questions: When are you coming back? Where will it be? These are only some of the signs resulting from the great satisfaction of all the medical staff and their enthusiasm to leave their families once more for another medical mission, just to serve those in need. The team members are all volunteers, but not necessarily active Vincentians. They give up a day’s work taken from their weekly rest time because they believe in our mission and have experienced a sense of service, far from politics and personal gain.
As for financing the purchase and fitting out of the LabMobile, this project is the result of the solidarity first experienced between two conferences in the same country (Saint Marc in Dora and Saint Joseph in Ghazir), their close collaboration, their strong friendship, and the pooling of resources between the “physician” and the “funder” of each of the two conferences, who strove to create this project in such a short time frame.
Upon approval of Lebanon’s National Council, we produced a 3-minute promotional film presenting the project and its feasibility, which was showed at our Charity dinner in November 2018. We received a lot of positive feedback and interest from the people there. This pushed us to go further: we presented it to businesses, corporations and embassies in order to obtain funds for the purchase and fitting-out of the van. We even took part in talk shows on TV and radio several times using videos and photos to promote our cause. After five months, we were able to order our van.
France’s National Council provided funding for the laboratory equipment. Thanks to the twinning between Saint Marc Conference in Dora and the Loire Departmental Council in France, our twin presented the project to the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul’s International Commission in France. The promotion of a local project between two Lebanese conferences worldwide shows that our work with the poorest of our brothers and sisters can inspire people around the world, as long as they are convinced of our mission and that the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul’s message of love and hope is known and spread. This cross-border solidarity reminds us that our Society is an international network of charity according to the model Frédéric OZANAM would have wanted nearly 190 years ago.
The LabMobile is a true testimony to Vincentian charity on three levels. First of all, it is Vincentian charity at the local level, between members of a conference and the people they serve. This project arises from the charity that is actively extended to the most needy by trying to meet their needs while bringing social justice to them.
It is also testimony to Vincentian charity at the national level between members of two conferences of a country and volunteer members of the medical team. Lastly, it is testimony to Vincentian charity developed worldwide with members of the conferences of Loire and all of France.
The LabMobile is a concrete example of an innovative work of charity that knows no bounds. Even though it is an expensive service, our challenge is to offer it free of charge while keeping quality results.
The sustainability of our project is the result of our donors’ perseverance and the generosity. My wish would be to set up several teams of experts who can take turns to carry out the missions and serve the greatest number of people.
Dr. Elie KHOURY
Member of Saint Marc Conference – Dora. Lebanon