Durangoan Nichole Baker is helping to bring better and earlier disease diagnosis, particularly for cancer patients, to Uganda, a country with only 18 pathologists.
While training pathology residents in Uganda for the first time in January, Baker was struck by the number of children with Burkitt lymphoma. The cancer affects children in Uganda and Kenya at high rates but is not well understood, she said.
“I was there 23 days, and I saw six or seven children pass away from Burkitt lymphoma,” she said.
In developing countries, patients are typically treated based on their symptoms and often children with Burkitt lymphoma will have symptoms similar to tuberculosis.
“The pathology lab gives the doctors the option to dig deeper,” she said.
Improving the pathology lab will save lives by diagnosing cancers that are not complex to treat, she said.
The trip was emotional for Baker and took her back to her boyfriend’s aggressive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis. After his death in 2006, Baker turned to mountain biking, vascular research and the study of pathology as her recovery outlets.
Now a pathologist’s assistant at Mercy Regional Medical Center, Baker alway wanted to work in developing nations. She traveled to Uganda to train pathologists after being accepted to work with the lab, which is supported by Massachusetts General Hospital, one of Harvard Medical School’s teaching hospitals.
She started her nonprofit, Path of Logic, shortly before leaving for Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital in Uganda in January.
“I am excited I have an organization that I’m working with that can show me the ways of sustainable pathology,” she said.
She formed the nonprofit to help with smaller projects at the lab and financially support residents working at Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital, which is associated with Mbarara University of Science and Technology. In Uganda, pathology residents are not paid. Thus far, she has raised enough to support three residents.
Baker plans to go back to Mbarara in January to train laboratory staff, students and the pathology residents, and she also plans to buy new, reusable vessels for the laboratory staff that will preserve tissue more effectively. She’ll also bring a hydrometer to make sure formaldehyde measurements needed to preserve tissue are accurate and consistent.
“My short-term vision is to help make the laboratory run efficiently, with as accurate results as possible, while also teaching dissections to the physicians,” she said.
She is also focused on learning about what’s sustainable for the staff in Uganda to maintain.
“To accomplish anything, I need to build relationships, trust and to be considered as part of the team,” she said.
In the future, she hopes to introduce new techniques that will help diagnose more complicated cancers.
Her long-term goal is to partner with one of the residents that she is teaching to open a laboratory in northern Uganda, where labs are needed. An ambassador for Yeti Cycles, her connection with the outdoor industry is helping to support her work in Uganda.
For example, she rode this year’s Yeti Beti model to fulfill her contract and later sold it to help fund Path of Logic.
During her upcoming 20-day trip, Baker plans to scout a potential fundraising bike tour of southwestern Uganda. She plans to ride a bike covered with stickers from local businesses and individuals supporting Path of Logic’s efforts in Mbarara.