Twice in the past two months, I have had the opportunity to participate in “surgery camps” along with two groups from Tenwek Hospital. Although brief, these have been great experiences and reminders of why I chose surgery as a vocation. Though I have since had a second opportunity to travel to and serve in Migori, below are some pictures and an account of my first time going to the surgical camp.
Tenwek has a long history of visitors coming to help provide compassionate care to a population in need. Over the years, there has been recognition for the need to train Kenyan doctors to not just stay at Tenwek, but to use the knowledge and skills they acquire at Tenwek to go to other places to serve. The surgery residency program that Andrea and I are involved with is one example of this training model. As Tenwek grows and the outside visitors continue to come, the Tenwek staff has also recognized the need to go to less developed areas to provide health care. Make no mistake, the population surrounding Tenwek desperately needs improved health care infrastructure. Yet, a large referral hospital exists in this community and provides incredible services.
Three hours away from Tenwek, near the Tanzanian border, there is a non-profit group, Kenya Relief, trying to improve health care options for their community. In late September, a team from Tenwek, consisting of 3 staff members from Theatre (the British word for Operating Room), a 4th year surgical resident named Kanyi, and myself, participated in a “surgery camp”. The concept of a surgery camp is to provide care that would be otherwise unavailable to a community in need. Often, a significant number of operations are performed in a very limited amount of time. To be done well, these camps require an enormous amount of preparation on behalf of the hosts. At Kenya Relief in Migori, this was done very well. Our hosts exceeded all expectations of hospitality, which are already high in Kenya, and proved very experienced at coordinating these camps.
After a tumultuous drive on the rural, winding roads navigated brilliantly by Dr. Kanyi, we arrived on Sunday afternoon to see patients and discuss surgery with them. Within only a couple of hours, we had planned the rest of our time. In 2.5 days, we had the privilege to operate on 15 patients. Twelve of these people had a condition known as “goiter,” a very enlarged thyroid in the neck that can cause difficulties in swallowing, speech, breathing and discomfort. Despite best laid plans, we also did an emergency case of a hernia that was stuck and would have been fatal if surgical care was unavailable. Operating from 7AM to 9PM on Monday and Tuesday and until noon on Wednesday, this camp was quite a feat in logistics. It also helped tremendously that Dr. Kanyi is a well-trained and safe surgical resident, the Tenwek Theatre team worked tirelessly, effectively, and efficiently together, and we had great anesthesia by visitors from University of Michigan. Despite all of those hours of work, we were able to provide really good care for patients while still eating 3 meals a day and resting really well, a surgeon’s dream.
These relatively few operations will hopefully provide a lasting impact to those people. Our presence will hopefully allow them to breathe a little better, swallow a little easier, and their quality of life improved. In the instance of the young man with the stuck hernia that could have cost his life, it is difficult to think about if this straightforward operation was unavailable to him. Not only would his life be shortened, his family would lose their husband, father, and breadwinner. Despite doing these operations, there are hundreds of patients still in need of care. And even though we were there at the right place at right time, there are sadly multiple instances around Kenya where there is no one able to help.
It is incredible to see how Tenwek has progressed from starting a surgery residency program just under 8 years ago to sending its staff on mission trips. I was excited to play a small part at Migori, but I am even more excited to see how these surgical residents will be improving access to surgical care. There is so much potential here in Kenya, and it is a privilege to be a part of it.
Photo credits to Curtis Coghlan from Kenya Relief. All patients consented to their photos being taken and used.