Learning to overcome personal barriers

During a Roche secondment year in Uganda, Katrin touched the lives of many children at an orphanage. She adapted to the realities of local healthcare needs, made lasting contributions and gained new insights about herself.

I have always felt a deep sense of satisfaction in helping others. Perhaps it goes back to my childhood in East Germany before the Berlin Wall fell. I remember vividly the thrill of receiving packages of food and clothing from relatives in West Germany.

Thanks to the hard work of my parents, I was able to finance my education as a pharmacist. I had intended to do volunteer work after graduation, but instead took a position in 2003 at Roche in Basel, Switzerland.

My current job is Quality Site Manager for Solid Dosage Forms. That means I inspect third-party manufacturers to ensure the quality of the drug-making process. Whenever I walk into a pharmacy, I can see Roche medicines that have been a part of my work.  

I never forgot my desire to do humanitarian work. In 2013, I got my chance with the Roche secondment program. This programme allows employees who meet certain criteria to spend up to one year on a hands-on project in some of the world’s poorest countries. By sharing their skills and knowledge, employees have a human impact that goes beyond conventional financial aid. They return to their jobs with invaluable insights into healthcare needs in other parts of the world.


People in Uganda living more than 5 kilometres from a health facility

I chose to work with the Kids of Africa programme in Uganda. This Swiss-based charity has created a school, farm, healthcare clinic and ten individual homes run by local foster mothers for orphaned and abandoned children. Their motto is ‘We are family’. The children are not put up for adoption but grow up together in a healthy environment and receive an education so they can contribute to society. I liked this combination of self-help and sustainability.

The projects that I had planned didn’t materialise immediately. Accustomed to work at a rapid pace in Switzerland, I had to learn to slow down.

My first months in Uganda were not easy. I was not used to the tropical heat and humidity, and food that mostly consisted of rice, beans and a corn-flour mash known as posho. The projects that I had planned didn’t materialise immediately. Accustomed to work at a rapid pace in Switzerland, I had to learn to slow down.


Ugandans living on less than a dollar a day

I had not been particularly good with kids before, so it was a steep learning curve. After settling in, I helped some of the older children prepare for school exams and taught courses on hygiene, diseases, sexual education and first aid.

I soon realised that many children could not see properly. I organised eye examinations and raised money through my network of family and friends in Europe to purchase eyeglasses. It is amazing what a difference a simple pair of glasses can make in the life of a child.

Other initiatives had a connection to my professional training. I improved the process for purchasing and storing medicines. I filled out medical records on simple notecards for each child, set up a sick bay and put together first-aid kits.  

When the day nurse left, the children often came to me when they were hurt. I learned to overcome my fear of blood and helped them bandage their wounds. I also accompanied kids on visits to doctors and hospitals.

One day, I made a trip to a local hospital with one of our boys to have a cyst on his throat removed. In the waiting room, a young girl approached me with a warm smile. Her right arm had been amputated above the elbow and her face was severely scarred by burns. My first reaction was to turn away, but she would not let me. Still smiling, she looked into my eyes and led my hand to the stump of her arm. Then she traced the burn marks on her face with my fingers. It was an intense moment of acceptance and love. That little girl taught me something profound about my humanity, about overcoming my own barriers to reach out to others.

It is remarkable that a company sends an employee abroad for a full year of personal development . . .

One of the biggest challenges during my year with Kids of Africa was taking charge of all ten children in our house while the regular ‘mummy’ was away. For four weeks, I got the kids ready for school, cleaned, washed clothes and cooked, as well as entertained and counselled them.

Katrin mentored Kevin during her year in Uganda and still has a close bond with him. Besides that she is financing high school studies for other kids outside of the Kids of Africa community. To help more of these children she founded her own association and sells jewellery and sandals made by a local artist* (www.mukisa.ch).

I also mentored several children, including Kevin. He was a stubborn boy who barely spoke and avoided eye contact. Gradually, I gained his trust and we grew very close. Kevin is like a son to me now, and we talk on the phone regularly.

Helping those children in Uganda has transformed me. I am now more open to people and freer with my emotions. At work, I am more focused on what is really important.

The experience has also strengthened my connection to Roche. It is remarkable that a company sends employees abroad for a full year of personal development while continuing to pay their salaries and guaranteeing their jobs when they return.

The mission of our company is help people with innovative medicines. In some small way, my year in Uganda was an extension of that philosophy. By caring for those children, I may have changed some lives. The experience has certainly changed mine.

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Tags: Access to healthcare, Philanthropy