Debi Malool

Angel of Grace

    It isn't so unusual that a resident of a resort island would choose "the islands" as a summer destination. It might seem odd, however, that for Debi Malool and two dozen other locals, the islands of choice were remote, poverty-stricken and worlds away.
    Debi, a registered nurse who works for Hospice Care of the Lowcountry, traveled to Africa with two mission teams from St. Luke's Episcopal Church in June to minister to villagers on the distant Tanzanian islands of Jaja and Mbwere. Debi was with the group of medical professionals. The others worked on construction projects.
    "Going to third-world countries comes with adventures," Debi said. On the final leg of the journey to Mbwere, with people and supplies crammed onto a small boat, the adventure almost became catastrophe. They had misjudged the tide, the boat was overloaded, and it got stuck at one point. "It was getting dark," Debi said. "We were all looking at one another and thinking 'What have we done? What if this boat sinks?'" Seeing crocodiles and a hippopotamus did not comfort them.
    Once they arrived, the purpose of the mission was clear. Word had spread that medicine people were coming. The clinic was full every day. They treated 2,200 people over two weeks. Some of the villagers had never before seen "masungu," or white folk.
The nurses and doctors treated respiratory diseases, malaria and HIV, among other maladies. Some scenes were especially memorable. "I'll never forget," Debi said, "watching Rick Vanderslice (a Hilton Head urologist) removing lesions by flashlight in a little room with chickens strutting around."
    The group's living quarters were small, open-air rooms outfitted with old hospital beds. Some chose to sleep on yoga mats on the floor. Mosquito nets were a necessity. There was no electricity or running water. Meals of corn, peas and beans were cooked in the cans atop a propane tank. Bathroom facilities were a cement enclosure with a hole in the ground. "We could brush our teeth with our bottled water, but there was no way to shower," Debi said, adding that "nobody really cared." Compared to those they came to serve, they were living like royalty.
    Her trip to Tanzania was Debi's third medical mission trip. In 2006 and 2007, she went to northeast Kenya to work with the Pokot tribe. "These people are the lowest of the lower classes, the poorest of the poor," she said. The group treated over 2,000 people and turned away just as many.
The Pokot live in extremely primitive conditions. "They have absolutely nothing," Debi said. "No electricity or running water. They sleep on the ground. Some do have shelters made of grass and sticks." Debi was amazed at how grateful they were for the least bit of medical attention. "These people walked barefoot for eight hours to get to our clinic," she said.
    Treatments in Kenya consisted primarily of oral hydration, antibiotics and temporary fixes for malaria and HIV. "People were dying of starvation, malaria and AIDS," Debi said. The medicine they provided "might help one, but there really were no cures."
    Why would a full-time mom, wife and nurse from a posh resort like Hilton Head choose to pay her own way (up to $4,000) to live in abject poverty for two weeks in a third-world village?
    It was her lifelong dream. "I had wanted to join the Peace Corps after high school," she said, "but I went to college instead. Then came marriage, kids and a career..."
    Now that she's been to Africa, she's hooked. She knows she will go back again and again. "My heart is with the Pokot," she said. "Though they are among the world's poorest, most disempowered, most forgotten people, they cling fiercely to life."
    The reward for Debi is making a difference. "You know going over there that you're not going to save everybody. But if you can help one person, it's all worth it."

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Professional titles: RN, BSN, CHPN (Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Nurse) Married to: Guy Malool Mom to: Haley, Guy, Greg, and Brad A nurse since: 1978 With Hospice Care of the Lowcountry: 12 years. Advice: "When I talk about my trips, some people say, 'Oh I wish I could do something like that.' Well, guess what? You CAN! You can figure out a way to do whatever it is you really want to do. That's what I did." Long-range goal: to start a foundation or organization to provide regular health care for refugee and orphan children in third-world countries.