Helping others, worlds away
For some, Africa is nothing but a far-away land, filled with mysteries and danger. But for Cornwall resident Peter Labelle, it’s like a second home. The one-time nurse, now manager of Information Technology at the Canadian Mental Health Association Champlain East, has been travelling to the continent on a yearly basis since he can remember.
“I try to go every year,” he explained, in his office at 329 Pitt Street. “I didn’t go last year though, because of the whole Ebola crisis.”
Yet it wasn’t the fear of contracting the disease itself that forced Labelle to cancel his trip, but rather the possibility of being stranded in South Africa. “They were closing the borders and I simply didn’t want to be stuck in South Africa.”
The man isn’t afraid of much, having participated in several tours in Yugoslavia as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces. “I was in the army for eight years,” he said. Located directly in front of his desk is a portrait that commemorates the battalion he served in.
Labelle’s full fledged fight against the Buruli ulcer
But much like being deployed, Labelle sees his trip to
Africa as a sort of mission. “I go there to educate residents when it comes to the
Buruli ulcer,” he stressed. “That’s where my background in nursing comes in
As president of the Achieving Buruli Ulcer Reduction and Awareness (ABURA) Foundation, the man knows well the extent of the destruction the ailment can create. “It’s very dangerous,” he added. “It creates a big ulcer, and the toxin it creates destroys the nerve endings as well as tissue and numbs the pain, so most people don’t always think it’s that bad.”
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “Buruli ulcer is caused by a germ, mycobacterium ulcerans, that mainly affects the skin but which can also affect the bone. The germ belongs to the same family of organisms that cause leprosy and tuberculosis.”
This year, he and his 16-year-old son, Liam, made the trek to Ghana, located between Côte d’Ivoire and Togo. The country is home to 27 million inhabitants of several different faiths. “My father was a professor there,” mentioned Labelle. “I know it very well.”
Labelle’s been going to the country since 2009 and this year, he visited several communities within the Sekyere Afram Planes, from October 17 to November 8. The duo, accompanied by volunteers and health workers from the region, crossed some challenging terrains in order to reach far-away communities. “Some of these communities are cut off from the world, it seems,” observed the man. “They are either accessible only through motorcycles or very good 4 x 4 vehicles. If you don’t have any, you can expect to walk several hours or even days.”
Sitting at his desk, he turns his work laptop around, revealing a video. In it, the camera is pointed in front of an all-terrain vehicle, as it makes its way through grass that is taller than the vehicle itself. “That’s one of the roads we took,” he explained. “We left one community at night and got to another during the day.”
But not all things are fun and games. Even though he loves Africa, Labelle is quick to point out that some dangers can lurk on the big continent. “On one of the roads we took, later that day, some people robbed a car and killed everyone inside,” he recalled, grimly.
Once in communities, the team distributed much-needed items, such as school supplies, adhesive bandages, medication and clothing. They also did some presentations in the evening, waiting for the return of residents who worked in the fields. “We showed them what to look for in order to distinguish Buruli ulcers,” he pointed out.
The following day, Labelle, his son and medical staff would examine a slew of people. In the pictures he displays, a long lineup of residents can be seen, spanning for countless meters. “For some of them, that was the first medical checkup they had ever had in their lives.”
The result? “I got to see pretty much everything,” he admitted. “From leprosy, to small infections caused by little cuts.”
In the pictures he showcases are pain-stricken faces, all of them desperate for a cure. One photograph stands out amongst the trove of others. A little baby boy, not older than one, stares blankly at the camera. His big brown mirror like eyes showcases suffering like no other. His face is covered with sores and a good portion of his nose has been “eaten away” by Yaws, a chronic infection that affects mainly the skin, bone and cartilage and can lead to disfigurement.
“When he got to us, he was pretty much dead,” said Labelle, a hint of emotion piercing through his voice. “But we managed to save him.”
What saved the baby from a slow painful death was not a godlike substance or an expensive and rare vaccine. A single shot of Penicillin is needed in order to cure Yaws.