BRUNSWICK, Maine — Brunswick psychiatrist Lynn Ouellette will be honored Thursday in Boston as a finalist for the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare’s Compassionate Caregiver Award.
But Ouellette told the Bangor Daily News that she has already received “a huge gift” through her practice treating patients suffering from a range of afflictions, including anxiety and postpartum depression, and from her work in Kenya with orphaned children living with HIV and AIDS.
In January, Ouellette will return for the fourth time to volunteer at Nyumbani, a Kenyan community created to support and raise children with HIV and AIDS.
“It’s the most incredible place on Earth that I’ve ever seen,” Ouellette said of Nyumbani. “It’s rural and very simple. They have no power in their homes, they cook outside, they get water from a common watering hole. Their homes are built out of brick from the Kenyan soil.”
In Nyumbani Village, she leads workshops and support groups for 100 grandparents who are raising 1,000 orphans — some their own grandchildren and some as foster children — living with HIV and AIDS.
Nearby, at the Nyumbani Children’s Home, the first orphanage in Kenya dedicated to children with HIV and AIDS, Ouellette works in a tiny counseling center to treat children identified by the staff counselor as having particular difficulties.
The orphanage opened in 1992 with, Ouellette said, “the idea that it was going to be a hospice, because back then most children were dying.”
Today, 120 children from infancy to age 23 receive medical treatment and attend school. According to USAID, more than 1.6 million people in Kenya live with HIV/AIDS, and 1.1 million children have been orphaned due to AIDS.
While the children attend school, the “incredible” grandmothers attend support groups and workshops and make baskets and hand-beaded items — which Ouellette and others bring to the U.S. to sell through a company called Tuko Pamoja, or “We are together.” They then return the profits to the Kenyan women.
“My all-time favorite thing in Kenya was a workshop last year,” Ouellette said. “To see these woman come in and say, ‘Oh my god, this is all for us?’ They all sang in a circle at the end of the day, and some of us were just sobbing, it was so powerful.”
As a psychiatrist, Ouellette counts as one of her great triumphs working with a psychotic teen to find medication in rural Kenya and return him to school.
“It’s my most amazing story,” she said. “I knew he was actively psychotic — hallucinating — but right in the middle of rural Kenya, I said, ‘How am I going to treat this person? I don’t know what medications are available.’”
Working with the counselor, Ouellette found a psychiatrist in Nairobi willing to write a prescription based on Ouellette’s diagnosis, and she paid for two years of the antipsychotic medication Zyprexa.
“And he’s doing extremely well, and now he rides his bike to the high school in the village,” she said. “Last January, his father came in and saw me. His father said, ‘My son is a new man.’ I have many, many amazing stories like that.”
Back in Brunswick, Ouellette has worked for 22 years treating people struggling with “a whole range of problems,” from depression to anxiety, as well as many suffering from what has become something of her specialty: postpartum depression.
She volunteers for the Postpartum Depression Project to consult and train crisis workers and hospital staff to recognize, diagnose and treat women with postpartum depression.
“They really struggle in silence because they’re isolated and don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “It profoundly affects their feelings about themselves as a good mother … but they have a tremendous capacity to get better.”
Psychotherapy allows her to develop intimate relationships with patients over time “and really work with people around a lot of issues that are unique to them as individuals, but also issues such as loss, grief, shame, that people keep hidden,” she said. “By building a trusting relationship, you can watch people change their lives. It’s a wonderful experience. Doing the kind of work I do, it’s really a huge gift.”
Through her blog, www.plopsy.com, Ouellette brings her experiences with the Kenyan people to the rest of the world.
“It’s just so amazing — 1,000 children running around with big smiles looking happy,” she said. “They would have died. And many of the children have been rescued from unbelieveable circumstances … you know that these children have survived because this village was built. We cry a lot, but we cry a lot out of joy, as well every once in awhile.”