Team of experts help in Nigeria

Sister Deirdre TwomeySister Deirdre Twomey writes from Mile Four Hospital, Abakaliki.

Nigeria, 2005

A letter from America caused great excitement here at Mile Four Hospital. In it, Medhat Allam told us:     “I am a general surgeon willing to join hands with you in providing help for poor people in Africa. In 1997, some friends and I started a volunteer medical group that is now registered in New York State as the International Surgical Mission Support (ISMS), a self-sufficient group that raises enough funds to cover annual expenses, providing direct medical care and bringing large amounts of supplies and equipment to help the local doctors at the end of our mission. We have been to different countries and provided surgical care for hundreds of patients free of charge.”

Beginning in Haiti, they have already visited Honduras, Mexico, Brazil, Vietnam and Nepal. The team members include a general surgeon, a cardiothoracic surgeon, a plastic surgeon, a pulmunologist, four operation room nurses, a recovery room nurse, and two nurse anaesthetists. There is also a gynaecologist on the team but he was unable to make it for their visit to us.

These specialists, who work in three different hospitals in New York, try to take their annual leave at the same time to be able to travel abroad on their volunteer work. This is no small feat!

Here at Mile Four, our major surgical services are limited to Caesarean sections and other obstetric emergencies. We also have occasional limb amputations and other surgical procedures for some of our Hansen's disease patients. Much would have to be done to prepare for this visiting team. We knew we would be looking at over a hundred surgeries in less than five days!

The approval of the visit was given by the State Governor, Dr. Sam Egwu. Mr Henry Alo, the Commissioner for Health, also promised his support.

About four weeks prior to the visitors’ arrival, patients started coming to Mile Four on Fridays in huge numbers for the screening exercise. This was a very important aspect of our preparation, as people arrived on our doorstep with every imaginable condition. Our staff were stretched to the limit but they responded very generously.

On May 6, our hospital administrator, Sister Maria Gonzaga, travelled to Lagos to welcome the twelve members of the team on their first visit to Africa. They had a smooth passage through the usual hurdles in the airport, thanks to the assistance of Mr. Okafor, an immigration official who understood the special circumstances – the medical supplies and equipment filled thirty-eight pieces of luggage!

Sunday morning dawned bright and clear but unfortunately, the morning flight from Lagos to Enugu was delayed for more than four hours. Meanwhile, here in Abakaliki, a lot of Mile Four employees had voluntarily turned up after Sunday service. They were aware of the huge crowd of patients and their attendants who had been gathering in the hospital from near and far since the previous day, awaiting the final screening by the visiting team.

The Ebonyi State Government had generously provided transport for the visitors from Enugu Airport to Abakaliki. Eventually, at 4 p.m. the team arrived and were received by Dr. Sylvester Egbuka, our Medical Superintendent, and Mr Henry Alo, the Commissioner for Health. After a late lunch, they went straight to work. Three of them went to screen more than two hundred patients who had gathered, while the rest went to set up the operating room.

As soon as the patients and their attendants saw them, they gave a cheer. At last all doubts were erased. It was really true. The screening exercise continued up to 10 p.m.

There was a last minute change in the venue of the operating room. They discovered that the nearby, newly-built WHO research laboratory had air conditioning in contrast to our surgical theatre, which had been spruced up for their use!

On Monday, surgery started at 7.30 a.m. and continued up to 9.30 p.m., with a half-hour break at lunch time and a few breathers in between for cold drinks. That set the pattern for the rest of their stay.

Dr. Sylvester Egbuka, Medical Superintendent with his wife, Udochi, and their baby daughter, ChiagoziemDr. Egbuka and Mr. Chinedu Nwigwe, a consultant surgeon from the State Teaching Hospital, worked with the visiting team, as did some of our staff. It was wonderful to see how they all bonded together, working with kindness and everyone moving with a sense of urgency. All were determined to help as many as was humanly possible. It was hard but satisfying work.

On Tuesday, representatives of the visiting team and the hospital paid a courtesy call on the State Governor. Dr. Patel told him about their mission and invited him to meet the team at work. The Governor accepted the invitation. The very next afternoon, he arrived in a flurry with a fleet of cars. He gowned up and entered the operating room and watched the happenings on the three operating tables, repeatedly expressing his gratitude.

Sometimes during the lunch break, in twos and threes, the visitors would stroll around and visit our Hansen's disease and TB patients. They were visibly touched by the way these people cope so cheerfully with their handicaps and illnesses. They were also moved by the efforts of MMM here and the amount of work that was being done with such limited facilities and resources.

By Friday, departure day, the Team looked exhausted. Nevertheless, they did six more surgeries that morning, bringing the total number to 107. These included herniae, lipomata, goitres, hydrocoeles, a nephrectomy, repair of cleft lips (for children and adults), and reconstructive surgeries for congenital deformities and wound contractures.

Most of these patients were very poor and had borne their condition for years – some as many as eighteen years – because they could not afford the cost of surgery.

Nineteen-year-old Chineio and her younger brother had both been born with a cleft lip. For many years, the people of their village had been contributing money to pay for the cost of plastic surgery. It had begun to look like an impossible goal as the fee went up every year. There were tears of gratitude when Chineio came out of the Operating Room and her real beauty was evident for all to see.

Though all of the visiting team were American-born, they spoke of grandparents who came originally from Japan, Egypt, Russia, Germany, Italy, Canada, India and Ireland. It was as if the whole world had sent delegates as Angels of Mercy to come to the aid of the poor and suffering people around us here.

US Surgical Team

US Surgical TeamRavi Kothurn MD,
General & Thoracic Surgeon
Medhat Allam MD,
General & Laparoscopic Surgeon
Joseph de Bellis MD, Plastic Surgeon
Rajesh Patel MD, Internal, Pulmonary & Critical Care
Robert Mineo CRMA, Anaesthetist
Michael Sherwood, CRMA, Anaesthetist
Chris Torres RN
Grace McCarthy RN
Erin Catherine O’Driscoll RN
Mary Ellen Spandosis RN,
ICU Nurse
Ellen Herfield RN
Stephanie Gorey RN

On the departure day, Sister Fidelia Ogujawa organised a sumptuous farewell lunch. There was not much time as the visitors had a plane to catch.

In thanking them, Dr. Egbuka spoke of their generosity and how they had given new life and hope to the patients they had served. He also invited them to come out again. Each member of the team was then presented with a souvenir of their visit to Mile Four. They were moved and grateful for the gesture.

The visitors told us they would have liked to socialise a bit more but were conscious of the fact that they did not have much time. Suddenly there were drumbeats outside! Throughout their stay they had expressed a desire to watch some traditional dances but it hadn’t been possible to fit that in with their tight schedule. At the last minute Sister Maria Gonzaga had organised the dance group, made up of children from the village.

Well, our visitors forgot all about the plane, left their lunch and rushed outside. Time stood still as they watched the cultural display with glee. Two of them joined in the dance to the amusement of all.

As we looked through our Visitors’ Book that evening we were touched by what they had written:

“We never had such a smooth passage through any airport!”

“We are very happy with the planning and cooperation on your part.”

“The people here are warm and very welcoming.”

“The patients are very resilient.”

“We have never before done more than 70 operations during any of our visits.”

“We have been changed by what we have experienced this week. Our lives will never be the same again.”

“Thank you for having us. We had a great dose of reality that will change our lives forever.”

If they were touched by what they saw here, we were equally impressed and challenged by their generosity and commitment to service. One of our staff nurses, Louisa, who worked with them the whole week summarised it well:

“This can only be explained by love – unconditional love.”