by Erin Cannon
Every six months, Dr. Kristin Schroeder says goodbye to her husband Todd and all the high-tech “comforts” that Duke University has to offer and boards a plane for what is a 36-hour trip to Mwanza, Tanzania.
Schroeder is a pediatric neuro-oncologist with Duke University in Durham, North Carolina but for six months every year, she lives and works in Mwanza. When Kristin first started working in Tanzania, she was only one of two pediatric oncologists in the entire country focusing on treating cancer of any form in children.
Dr. Schroeder believes that every child should have access to medical care no matter where in the world the child resides. And she has dedicated her life to turning that belief into reality. Eight years ago, a child diagnosed with cancer in Tanzania would have a 20% chance of survival. Today, the survival rate has increased to 50% thanks to Dr. Schroeder.
The Duke Global Cancer Initiative started in 2014. Since Duke had HIV research and clinical collaborations in Tanzania for 30 years, they wanted to find a Tanzanian partner site for cancer care. The Bugando Medical Centre (BMC) had just started its oncology program and the head of the Duke program was impressed with their ideas and dedication. Thus, Mwanza was selected as one of the 3 original partner sites, along with Barretos Brazil and Tata Memorial in Kolkata, India.
Twice a year for the last 8 years, Schroeder travels to Mwanza for three month stays. Her goal is to increase the survival rate of children with cancer while decreasing the rate at which treatment is abandoned. Kristin’s passion for enabling quality care for children around the world led her to form the nonprofit International Cancer Care and Research Excellence (iCCARE). With the support of Duke’s Global Health Initiative and Cancer Institute, as well as grant funding from the National Institute of Health, Schroeder was able to establish a pediatric oncology practice at Bugando Medical Centre in Mwanza.
The job has not been an easy one. Access to a skilled physician like Dr. Schroeder is just one of many areas impacting the chance for survival. Kristin and the iCCARE identified several factors that were indicators of whether a child’s treatment would be successful. Once identified, she and her team did everything they could to close the gaps that existed. When she learned the cost to travel to Mwanza from surrounding areas was an impediment for most families, she arranged for a benefactor to donate space for a hostel thanks to a grant provided by the Burkitt Lymphoma Foundation for Africa. She hired a patient navigator when she saw families abandoning treatment due to being overwhelmed by the complicated and costly chemotherapy process. She started a cancer awareness campaign when it became apparent that area doctors were not referring patients for treatment as expeditiously as their US counterparts. Through her education, the time it took for a referral went from 89 days down to 16 days.
I had the opportunity to volunteer alongside Dr. Schroeder at BMC in July 2021 and have seen her passion, generosity and experience in action. Before we left on the trip, I asked Kristin how I could help. She tasked me with getting toys and crafts that the anxious patients could distract themselves with as they await their treatments. Acquiring basic medical supplies was also on the top of her list. I put the word out to my friends and family and within a few days, I had 250 pounds of necessities packed into 5 checked bags.
During my two week stay, I saw Kristin work all hours of the day and night, ensuring every child who made the journey to BMC received care. On her day off, Kristin conducted a seminar where she hosted 80 health professionals from around the region and instructed them how to identify signs of cancer, how to text pictures for potential diagnosis and most importantly, building trust with the locals and to encourage referrals to BMC for conventional treatment. Her work never ends.
Dr. Schroeder’s support of her Tanzanian patients does not slow up when she is back in the US. Kristin reviews the WhatsApp photos sent from local clinics around the area asking for an expert diagnosis. She ensures the patient database is kept up to date, so she is prepared for her next trip. She guides her Patient Navigator on next steps for each child while she is not there. She raises money for iCCARE so she can continue to make a difference in the lives of these children. She truly is making the world a better place for children.
To learn more about Dr. Schroeder and iCCARE, please visit https://i-ccare.org/about-us/
About the Author
Erin Cannon lives in North Charleston, South Carolina with her son Austin and works in IT for cloud-based software company Blackbaud. She is passionate about giving back. In her free time, she volunteers with Make a Wish SC, Charleston Animal Society and Libby and Mace’s Place Animal Rescue. She is also a living kidney donor.