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Linda Altizer trained nurses, offered malaria testing kits during trip to Liberia

March 11, 2011|BY TIFFANY ARNOLD | tiffanya@herald-mail.com
  • Linda Altizer spent nine days in Liberia, West Africa, through the Nurses Without Borders medical missionary group.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

When forensic investigator Linda Altizer isn't determining a cause of death, she's traveling the globe trying to help the living.

Altizer recently returned from Liberia, a small country in West Africa. For nine days, she trained new nurses and administered malaria testing kits to residents in the most rural reaches of the country, which has been struggling to rebuild since its civil war ended in 2003.

An Atlanta-based medical missionary group, Nurses Without Borders, coordinated the trip. Altizer is on the national nonprofit's board of directors. Her trip was a follow-up visit since she and several others from the group went on a fact-finding visit to Liberia in 2009, when the group met the country's vice president, Joseph Boaki.

"Malaria is the No. 1 killer of children in Liberia," said Altizer, who returned to Washington County on Feb. 28.

Malaria is a treatable, mosquito-borne illness caused by a parasite. The first symptoms of malaria are nonspecific and flu-like chills, muscle pains and vomiting. Left untreated, malaria can lead to death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were between 190 and 311 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2008. Most of the estimated million malaria deaths were among young children, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa.

Altizer, 62, who lives just east of Hagerstown, thumbed through a stack of photos of children from the Liberian villages she visited. Food is not plentiful in Liberia, she said. Many of the children pictured had distended stomachs.

Ironically, Altizer said, there's not enough fresh water to drink in the regions she visited, despite the pools of standing water she encountered due to heavy rains.

Standing water is what attracts mosquitoes, which spread the malaria.

According to the World Health Organization, Liberian children younger than 5 years old had higher rates of reported malaria cases and higher rates of death compared with the rest of the population. The rates for reported malaria cases among children was nearly 500 per 1,000  Liberians, while the rate for the entire population was around 200 per 1,000.

But the children in the photos she showed were smiling.

"These kids, even though they're poverty stricken, they're happy kids," she said.

Altizer has been on mission trips to three other countries through her church, Ringgold Church of Christ, and through other Christian, humanitarian organizations.

Altizer has taught nurses in central India and has helped build churches in Ecuador. She said she met with Nurses for the Nations founder Mary McMahon through a woman she met during her visit to India four years ago.

She said everywhere she's been, she's always surprised by the same thing. "That I love to go," she said. "When I get there, there's no restrooms, there's no food, there's no running water, but I love the people there and I love being there to help them."

Altizer was part of the first nursing program at Hagerstown Community College, a class that will celebrate its 40th anniversary this year. She has held many positions with Washington County Hospital and spent 10 years training the hospital's new nurses.

She worked alongside her former husband, the late Tom Altizer, an orthopedic surgeon, but has since remarried.

Altizer is currently a forensic investigator for Washington County. She said her Christian faith is what enables her to deal with facing death. She said that though she wasn't confronted with dying people while she was in Liberia, her Christian faith is what helped her get through the trying times — the lack of infrastructure in the rural areas, the lack of education among the people, and the lack of medical resources available to the sick.

She's reminded of this, she says, when she thinks of the Liberian children, many of whom remembered her by name, she said.

"My feeling is that God sent us here for a reason," Altizer said. "They can see God in us."

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