When Anita Smith visited The Gambia for a family holiday in 1992, little did she know it would mark the start of something special.
She and her daughter Alexia visited the children’s ward of a local hospital and the suffering they witnessed and the lack of basic supplies left a lasting impression.
When she returned home to Orlingbury, Anita set about organising a container of equipment and supplies to ship out to another hospital in The Gambia, Bansang Hospital, where conditions were said to be even more harrowing than those they had seen at the Royal Victoria.
Weeks after the container was shipped, Anita plucked up the courage to visit this hospital she had heard such horror stories about, not knowing how she would be greeted.
The welcome could not have been warmer, but from the moment she stepped on to the dark, over-crowded children’s ward she knew she had to do more.
Twenty years on, the charity she founded to help the hospital, the Bansang Hospital Appeal, has made an indescribable difference to the lives of the patients and staff there.
Thanks to the support of people in Northamptonshire and beyond, Anita has been able to send out 43 containers of supplies, fund and build an 80-bed children’s unit, provide 27 staff accommodation rooms, an obestetrics theatre and new labour and maternity wards.
The charity has also trained and sponsored 32 state-enrolled nurses at Bansang, it sponsors 43 staff, cares for 11 former patients and, with the help of the charity Power Up Gambia, is providing solar power for the operating theatres, which previously had an unreliable power supply and would often be plunged into darkness mid-operation.
The changes at Bansang Hospital are beyond belief.
Anita said: “It is a hospital I would happily be admitted to because I know I would be cared for.
“People expect it to be terrible because it is the developing world but it is a wonderful place. The staff are incredible and their practical skills are second to none. I would have full confidence in them.
“There are things we now take for granted there. We have a network of telephones that were established by the staff from Barclaycard and we have a computer lab.
“It is a happy hospital, it is like a big family-run establishment. It doesn’t matter whether you are an orderly or a doctor, everyone is treated equally and respected.”
One of the charity’s greatest achivements is the new children’s unit, which was opened in 2006 following a fundraising appeal in the Evening Telegraph that managed to raise £98,000.
The huge unit features large bays as well as a burns unit, isolation unit and a play room, and replaces the dreadful old children’s ward that Anita saw on her first visit to Bansang.
She said: “There were four in a bed at times during the malaria season with mothers sleeping in corridors and under the beds and everything done by candlelight. It was just a scene from hell.
“In the mornings in those early days you would be picking out the ones that had died overnight from cross-infection.”
The new children’s unit provides a standard of care previously unseen in sub-Saharan Africa, though its services remain under huge pressure due to problems like malaria and malnutrition.
One of the charity’s other main achievements is its work to improve staff retention.
Many nursing and medical staff were leaving the squalid conditions and poor pay of Bansang Hospital and many other African hospitals for better jobs in the UK, but thanks to the charity’s efforts to improve the hospital and accommodation staff retention currently stands at 99 per cent.
Anita said: “That is so important because the situation in sub-Saharan African is getting worse daily and developing world health facilities are on their knees.
“If only larger charities would listen to what we are doing here the difficulties could be met. They have got to start listening to the staff and not what we in the west think is right.”
Anita’s next priority is a £30,000 project to refurbish the existing operating theatre and build a second theatre.
The new theatres will be high quality with new equipment, air conditioning and a scrub room and recovery room, and should be completed by the end of July.
The charity will also continue upgrading staff accommodation, refurbish the male ward and look at the A&E department, which is effectively just an empty room where patients are first seen.
Anita says she will continue her work for Bansang Hospital for as long as she is able.
She said: “I have to say thank you to the individuals, the Women’s Institutes, the churches and the schools who have supported us. It is absolutely incredible what has been achieved at this hospital and people can see where their money has been spent.
“Tens of thousands of lives have been saved. Words cannot express how grateful everyone is in Bansang for the donations for a hospital that was going to close its doors many years ago and is now the leading hospital in the country and an example for others to follow in sub Saharan Africa.”