AusHeal Blog

2014 Update from Neil & Gwen Wetzig

We arrived in Goma 3 days ago after spending a week of invaluable experience at Kijabe Hospital in Kenya (about 1 hour outside Nairobi).

The time at Kijabe was good teaching. The main reason for the visit was to observe Spina Bifida surgery. There is so much Spina Bifida in Africa due to folate deficiency. In the developed world the condition is often detected in-utero and the foetus is aborted but in Africa the disability is usually not known until birth. Kijabe Hospital is a centre for treatment of such cases and they perform surgery on 40-50 cases per month. In Australia surgery for Spina Bifida is rarely performed for the reasons above. Interestingly there was a an American Paediatric Neuro-surgeon visiting Kijabe and even at his hospital in Birmingham Alabama where more Spina Bifida surgery is performed than anywhere else in the USA, they perform only 15 cases per year maximum. I was able to observe 4 procedures in 4 working days and attend their Paediatric Neurosurgery Morbidity and Mortality Meeting (which occurs only every 3 months) so it was timely I was there. Spina Bifida is also commonly associated with Hydrocephalus (big head) and so I also was able to observe some of that surgery.

From there onto Goma. The border crossing went really well and was one of the best we have had which was pleasing, as there had been some issues at the border in recent weeks and our visit to the Congolese Embassy in London prior to travelling to Nairobi had been less than encouraging.

We received many warm welcomes from our Congolese friends. We had just arrived at our accommodation when Fanny Mila, whom I operated on in 2009 to bypass her oesophageal stricture (narrowed swallowing tube), came to visit with Pastor Samuel as interpreter. Mila has recently become engaged to be married and the wedding will be in September so during their one and half hour visit she wanted to tell us all about the wedding, as she regards us as her Australian parents. Every time we come to Goma she tells us a little more of her story and we realise what a miracle it is to see her so well, having completed an accountancy degree, supporting her family in her village and now to be married! We will meet her fiancée soon as he is away at present. Sadly we will not be in Goma for the wedding but she plans to hold a ‘Kitchen Party’ on 23 August so we can attend.

Gwen and I spent Friday getting ourselves sorted before the main teams arrive – local SIM cards for our phones, internet access at the hospital, supplies and water to drink, organising the visas for the rest of the team to facilitate their border crossing, mixed with many warm welcomes. Relationships are so important in Africa so it is essential to take time to greet many people.

In the afternoon I saw 50 new patients with Dr Luc and the new HEAL Africa surgeon, Dr Medard, for whom AusHEAL has sponsored the training. It was good to work with them both.

The pathology is so excessive and the people live in poverty so triaging who should have surgery and who should not is always a difficulty. We finished at 7.30pm.

The first patient we saw was a 12 year-old girl from Mila’s village who has the same problem as she had, so we have planned her major surgery for Wednesday 13 August. The last patient was a man who had this surgery last year and attended for follow-up.  He is doing fairly well which is encouraging. This is not a common operation and interestingly while waiting for our flight in Nairobi on Thursday, I received a phone call from an Upper GI surgeon in Sydney to get some ‘tips’ on a similar surgery he was performing the next day in Sydney. There are only a couple of Australian surgeons who have performed this procedure.

Other cases we saw on Friday were congenital abnormalities, many large goitres, and multiple other pathologies.

Yesterday was taken up with meetings in the morning and afternoon to ensure our ‘programme’ for the next 3 weeks proceeds well, as the remainder of the first AusHEAL team arrive tomorrow.  Dr Paul Millican (Plastic Surgeon) and Dr Peter Tralaggan (Anaesthetist) arrived yesterday afternoon so the team is starting to come together which is exciting. A quiet day today to prepare!

We will keep you posted!

Neil Wetzig (Director AusHEAL Congo Project / General Surgeon)