In January of 2017, Anya Koutras, MD, packed her bags and traveled to Ddegaya, Uganda for the first time. Ddegaya is a rural town five hours south of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. In Ddegaya, Anya volunteered at Engeye, a non-profit health clinic for the surrounding rural community.
First Day in Uganda
On Anya Koutras’ first morning in Ddegaya, Uganda, she stepped out of her bunkhouse to brush her teeth and stared in awe. More than 100 patients were lined up outside the clinic next door.
Year-round, the clinic has health officers with general knowledge and hosts visiting doctor teams two or three times a year. These teams provide medical relief and help educate the community. When the teams visit, the clinic is jam-packed because there is no other way for the citizens of Ddegaya to see a doctor. Anya has spent two weeks the past two Januaries volunteering at Engeye Health Clinic and she plans to return in 2019.
“Each year I’ve gone, I’ve done clinic work,” she says. “The clinic is very self-sustaining and the patients pay what they can – even if it’s just a nominal amount.
Anya began working at UVM Medical Center 14 years ago.
She practices full spectrum family medicine, including delivering babies, and teaches at the UVM Larner College of Medicine. Before coming to UVM, Anya also taught and practiced at Tufts and Boston University. She has always been interested in global health, but found that she was too busy to pursue it until two years ago.
Anya heard about the clinic through a friend from Albany Medical College, where she earned her medical degree. Over the years, her friend would always ask her to volunteer. But as a busy family medicine physician with two young daughters, Anya was never able to find the time. Three years ago, Anya had a personal life crisis that changed her views. “It got me thinking, why wait? I’m going to do this, I’m going to go help.”
In January of 2017, tragedy struck the clinic.
Anya was still packing her bags for her first trip to Uganda when she heard Stephanie Van Dyke, one of the founders of Engeye Health Clinic, had passed away in a tragic accident. Stephanie was an alumna of Albany Medical College and founded Engeye along with a Ugandan, John Kalule. Many of the volunteers considered Stephanie a close friend, but they also knew the importance of her vision. So, even though they were grieving, service continued – and Anya went ahead with her plans to travel to Ddegaya.
Anya says Stephanie’s passing brought the volunteers closer together. “You’re already in a situation where you’re going to bond with people in a quick way, you have meals together, you live in a bunkhouse together,” she says. “In addition, we were helping each other through a loss.”
When Anya returned in 2018, the community welcomed her back.
This time she brought her 18-year-old daughter, who worked on the Moon Catchers Project, which helps young teenage girls sew reusable sanitary pads. In Uganda, menstruation keeps many young girls out of school because they have no way to manage it. Anya donated a sewing machine to the project.
Anya co-led ALSO (Advance Life Saving in Obstetrics) classes for 35 midwives from local communities near the Engeye clinic. It was the first ALSO course ever taught in Uganda, and it received excellent feedback from participants. When she returns next year, she plans on teaching the course again.
Most recently, Engeye Health Clinic added a maternity center.
Women in Uganda have the fifth highest birth rate in the world. Engeye reached their budget goal for the maternity center in May of 2017 and in August, they began construction on the building. The birthing center, is nearly completed with midwives hired and expected opening by September of 2018. Anya is looking forward to assisting with the education and operations of the birthing center when she returns this January 2019.
What keeps Anya coming back to Uganda is the people that she’s met there, the friends she has made, and the sense of community. “I carry those experiences back with me with such deep appreciation for the kindness and generosity I saw in Uganda. I call it the Uganda grace. They’re faced with more challenging situations than we have here and they do it with such poise and calmness and that’s really impacted me. It’s increased my own appreciation and gratitude for my work and community here in Vermont.”
Anya Koutras, MD has been a member of Family Medicine Colchester since 2004, and her clinical areas of expertise are maternal newborn health, lactation, pediatric and adolescent health, and women’s health. As an Associate Professor and Specialty Advisor, and Director of the 4th year electives in Family Medicine at the Larner College of Medicinet at UVM in Burlington, VT. Her research focus is preventative health, and maternal child health.