by Richard and Missy Lee
Most of the time, Dr. Toby Shawe, 56, is a dermatologist in Wyndmoor and a resident of Roxborough — but for at least one month every year, this attractive, dynamic doctor and mother of three uses her other medical specialty — internal medicine — to aid the world’s needy. “I’m an incurable traveler who loves people,” she told us, “so why not travel to help others?”
She puts it another way, too: “If everyone could take on one person or one village, how different the world would be.”
Dr. Shawe makes many of her trips a group effort. Chestnut Hill and Dorset, Vermont, resident, Kit Wallace, the executive director of Smokey House, a school for troubled youth in Vermont, has joined Shawe on medically-centered visits to India and Uganda. Her other “Musketeer,” Janet Stern, a retired Chestnut Hill attorney, formatted all the legal documents for a vocational school in Bududa, Uganda, the site of their most recent trip. She also helped Dr. Shawe as nurse, scribe, and social worker.
“Volunteers are welcome all year round,” Dr. Shawe declared. “Everybody has something they can share, whether it’s reading books aloud, planting crops, even knitting. There’s a guesthouse in Bududa for volunteers — not fancy — no running water or electricity, but a sturdy roof and an outhouse.”
Of Bududa, Dr. Shawe said, “It seems that only the kids and the elderly are left. Most of the others have perished from HIV. Unfortunately, the World Health Organization has not allocated enough money for drugs, so there are multiple problems involved in providing care. Sometimes, family members share the drugs intended to treat just one person, which winds up doing nobody any real good. If several family members have HIV, some may have to wait until one member dies of AIDS so they can ‘inherit’ their drugs. Grim but true; there’s just not enough treatment to go around. Also, if someone is taking drugs to fight HIV or the conditions it fosters and doesn’t have a decent diet, the drugs upset their systems. And one month in a town doesn’t allow for much follow-up. These issues are frustrating, to say the least; you do the best you can with what you have.
“HIV is an immunodeficiency virus, which can result in warts, skin funguses and even eye infections. Tuberculosis can be activated, and such cases can become resistant,” Shawe continued.
Then, there’s transportation — or its lack thereof. “People have trouble getting to the hospital, which is also the HIV clinic. It is in need of everything, even sheets for the old mattresses on the few beds. Some people arrive in old mini-buses, which are always jammed full. A few lucky people have bicycles, but most simply walk.”
Another problem is corruption. Although drugs may cost less in Uganda than they do here, legitimate drugs are often diverted from normal distribution channels to be sold on the black market. Also, Uganda is “a man’s world,” she said. “Men have multiple wives, and girlfriends — and basic health education is virtually missing.” But when we noted the great pride that burst through her photos of people, even those in obvious need, she heartily agreed.
“There are plusses,” she continued. “They include people like Barbara Wybar, our hostess in Uganda. We may be there a month; Barbara is there full-time. (Wybar, who also maintains a home on the Hill, is a retired Germantown Friends School teacher who founded and still operates the vocational school in Bududa; she has lived there for four years so far.) And the people themselves, especially the children, are wonderful. They make it all worthwhile.
“For instance, there’s a group of orphans in the area, ‘Children of Peace.’ They’re supported by private donations from the U.S. and Canada. Their families have been decimated by AIDS, but these youngsters live in the community, and gather in Bududa every Saturday for food, clothing and classes at Barbara’s vocational school. They are terrific kids.”
Remember the airline that used to advertise that getting there was half the fun? No longer true, as those who fly know all too well. “There are at least 20 drugs that are needed in Third-World countries, and I take many of them with me,” Dr. Shawe said, “but airlines say a bag is a bag; they won’t cut you a break because your luggage is full of donated drugs to be used for humanitarian purposes. I’ve paid as much as $200 in baggage fees to carry in my own drugs to treat people.” Her eyes flash a bit at the memory.
Another un-fun part is inoculations. “I’m a very resistant person,” Shawe declared, “but I still get shots for yellow fever, typhoid, rabies and hepatitis A and B before every trip. I also take malaria pills along.”
How Dr. Shawe reached Philadelphia is a travel yarn in itself. “I was born and raised in Manhattan,” she told us. “In 1972, when I was 18, I traveled to Europe for two weeks with $700 — and stayed two years.” She then graduated from Columbia University and returned to Lille, France, to enroll in and graduate from France’s only private medical school, which had a reciprocal connection with the Medical College of Pennsylvania. Back in the States, MCP was where she met her husband, Dr. Saimy “Sammy” Badawy. Coincidentally, Dr. Badawy studied medicine in France, but at Bordeaux, not Lille.
Dr. Badawy, 50, has a travel tale of his own. He came to the U.S. from Beirut, Lebanon, at age 8, with his mother and five brothers. After graduation as a general vascular surgeon, he married Toby Shawe and practiced in South Philadelphia until medical malpractice insurance grew too expensive. During this time, Dr. Shawe worked part-time in a dermatology group practice for eight years, as she and her husband raised their three children — Gabrielle, now 20; Dylan, 17; and Natalie, 16. In 2002, she opened her practice in Wyndmoor and brought her husband into it as in-office dermatology surgeon.
We asked Dr. Shawe how she decides where to travel on her medical aid journeys. “I use the Internet,” she said. “There are all kinds of opportunities listed. Two years ago, I went to Ecuador under the auspices of the Global Citizen’s Network. I helped build a playground and a bridge. My first medical trip was to Lagos, the capital city of Nigeria. That was amazing, and disheartening. Here you have a country’s capital city, Lagos, with some people driving big Mercedes and wearing heavy gold jewelry — right beside open sewers and shocking poverty.”
Poverty is endemic to India, the locale of another of Dr. Shawe’s trips. And yet she is awed to this day by what just a few dollars and a bit of attentive care can accomplish. “There were 500 children in one school I visited. Just $20 worth of Vitamin A, one tablet once a week, can prevent night blindness, an all-too-common ailment among Indian children.” Her unstated implication was that it’s criminal not to provide help against such ailments.
“How about languages?” Not a problem; someone speaks some English wherever Dr. Shawe goes to help others. Also, she speaks a good grade of Spanish and is fluent in French. She plans to return to Uganda next Spring. “When you form a connection with a place and its people, it’s very hard not to go back.”
Dr. Shawe can be reached at 215-836-7212 or www.skinsmartderm.com.
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