26 May Health and Hope, Near and Far
OMP provider Dr. Naffie Ceesay carries on family legacy with health care outreach in Gambia
On your way up, always reach down and pick up somebody.
Those are the words that Dr. Naffie Ceesay remembers hearing from her brother, Ousman Koro Ceesay. They embody an ideal that Dr. Ceesay strives to live by – in honor of her late brother.
Growing up, Dr. Ceesay spent parts of her youth in Japan and the United States, but it was her formative years in Gambia that set her on the path to becoming a doctor. It’s a journey that has led her to be a part of the Olympic Medical Physicians team as a provider in the OMP Walk-In Clinic in Port Angeles.
I knew I wanted to go into medicine since I was a kid…I became more and more passionate about it as I got older. And I saw, obviously, the disparities traveling from country to country to country, how sad it is. - Dr. Ceesay
Gambia is a nation of about 2 million people. It’s a sliver of land in west Africa, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and Senegal on all other sides. At just 4,000 square miles, fewer than Connecticut, it is the smallest country on mainland Africa.
For Dr. Ceesay, it is the genesis for her motivation to work in health care. It is a land that signals loss but also gives her a sense of purpose and hope. She was born in Gambia. It is where her brother died in 1995 and it’s where her parents passed away, within two weeks of each other, in 2014.
Around the age of 10, Dr. Ceesay spent a summer with her grandmother in rural Gambia. She became friends with a girl who lived next door, but at the end of the summer, her friend contracted malaria and died.
“That’s where my passion came from,” Dr. Ceesay says. “I said, ‘When I get older, I’m going to be a doctor and make sure that I treat people so they don’t die’… I knew I wanted to go into medicine since I was a kid…I became more and more passionate about it as I got older. And I saw, obviously, the disparities traveling from country to country to country, how sad it is.”
Those losses are the very engine that drives her to bring much-needed health care to the people of Gambia. Toward this end, Dr. Ceesay founded the Ousman Koro Ceesay Foundation with the mission of providing health care and education to Gambians.
“Those are two basic needs,” Dr. Ceesay says. “You cannot have a good livelihood without those two. You need your health and you need an education.”
Following medical school in Saint Kitts and Nevis, West Indies, Dr. Ceesay completed her MBA and two residencies – one with Detroit Medical Center, the other with St. Luke’s University Health Network in New Jersey – as well as a Global Health Fellowship at the University of Washington.
In 2014, Dr. Ceesay made her first of nine medical missions to Gambia. On her first trip to Gambia, she built a relationship with a local clinic, Fajikunda Clinic, which serves as her base clinic on all of her visits. Dr. Ceesay estimates that Fajikunda Clinic sees 200,000 patients per year.
“The need is great there,” Dr. Ceesay says.
For Gambians, access to health care is extremely challenging. Dr. Ceesay approximates the ratio of doctors to individuals at 10,000-to-1. On each mission, Dr. Ceesay spends three-to-four weeks providing health care to residents and training local staff.
“I’m very passionate about trying to fix some of the inadequacies that we have health-wise in Gambia to make it better, make it more efficient, make it more accessible to vulnerable populations,” Dr. Ceesay says.
Since her first mission, when she personally paid for 5,000 pounds of medical supplies to be shipped from New York City to Gambia, Dr. Ceesay has grown the outreach into the OKC Foundation and has recruited doctor and nurse colleagues to accompany her to Gambia.
“Every single person who’s been with me wants to go back,” Dr. Ceesay says. “They get so much out of it. The little that we’re doing seems like the world to some of those people. It does make a difference and that’s what keeps us going.”
When Dr. Ceesay and her colleagues are in Gambia, they help train some of the local health care professionals with CPR, postpartum hemorrhage management and triaging techniques. On her most recent visit in December of 2019, they visited Fatoto, a remote village in eastern Gambia, where access to health care is even more scarce than the more populated areas of the country.
“The first day we got there, while I was seeing patients, I heard a commotion outside, and I looked out the window,” Dr. Ceesay says. “There was a bus that just arrived – I mean, a bus – and it was filled with people and I said, what’s going on, and they said, oh, they all heard you’re here, so the neighboring villages all packed in a bus and came.”
Dr. Ceesay and her colleagues, on this particular day, saw patients from 8:00 AM until midnight, at which point, she told the patients that they were tired and were going home, and would come back again the next morning.
“People were crying, ‘Please, don’t leave us,’” Dr. Ceesay recalls. “The emotional part of it is so draining. It’s amazing work, though. I enjoy it.”
On one occasion, the parents of a two-year-old boy came to Dr. Ceesay in hopes she could remedy the boy’s extreme case of hydrocephalus.
“It was so heartbreaking because I had to let them know, I’m not that type of a doctor,” Dr. Ceesay says. “I’m not a neurosurgeon. I can’t do anything. There was nowhere to send them.”
At the Walk-In Clinic in Port Angeles, Dr. Ceesay can refer patients to specialty providers or for lab work or diagnostic imaging. But in Gambia, there is very little access to technology such as MRI, ultrasound or X-ray outside of the cities. That experience has shaped Dr. Ceesay into the health care provider she is today.
“Over there, you don’t have all these fancy diagnostic tools and machines, so you have to resort to working with the basics,” Dr. Ceesay says. “It definitely helps sharpen your skills, especially your physical exam skills.”
The lack of access to health care that she witnessed as a child still held true all those years later.
“It boggles your mind,” Dr. Ceesay says. “I experienced this with my friend when I spent the summer in the village, even as a child, it was shocking…I had no clue that there were people who didn’t have access to medical care. People can have different experiences living in the same country. Like any part of the world where I have visited, there are those that are financially stable and others that are struggling. Poverty looks the same everywhere. When I did go back as a physician, several years later, I was still shocked by some of the stuff that I saw…I couldn’t sleep the first few days. My mind was running 100 miles an hour.”
In addition to the health care she and her colleagues provide to Gambians – and the medical donations she shares with local clinics – Dr. Ceesay delivers school supplies to children.
“It’s like Christmas for them,” Dr. Ceesay says. “The smiles on their faces make it my favorite part of the trips.”
The OKC Foundation awards annual scholarships to help Gambian children advance their education.
“Otherwise, some of them would have to drop out because their parents can’t pay for the school,” Dr. Ceesay says.
The scholarships are primarily awarded to young girls.
“They’re the most at-risk,” Dr. Ceesay says. “If a family has to choose who to give education to, it’s mostly going to be the boy. A lot of the girls drop out, or they don’t get the support financially they need. What we fail to realize is that when we educate a girl, we educate a generation ”
Both of Dr. Ceesay’s parents passed away while on vacation in Gambia, crystalizing for her a picture of a country whose health care needs are underserved.
“In my mind, a lot of us say, ‘It’s their problem,’” Dr. Ceesay says. “But when we go to developing countries on vacation or for work, it will become our problem should we have medical emergencies there. We will be in the same predicament as the local population…So in a way, when I advocate for the accessibility of healthcare, it may be beneficial to all of us in the process.”
If you are interested in supporting Dr. Ceesay’s medical missions to Gambia through the OKC Foundation, visit koroceesay.org/ to learn more.
“Community support has been paramount in making our trips a success,” Dr. Ceesay says. “Humanitarian work requires a collective effort from donors all the way to the volunteers, which makes an immense difference in the lives of those less fortune in our communities across the globe. There is power in numbers, ringing true to the old African proverb, ‘When spiderwebs unite, they can tie up a lion.’”