“The operations make a big difference to the lives of my patients. Most of them have suffered a long time, often since birth."
Dr Asrat Mengiste arrives at the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre in Moshi, Tanzania. It’s 8am and already 70 patients are lined up for a consultation. Twenty local doctors are waiting in the operating room. As he begins the first surgical procedure of the day, Dr Mengiste talks them through every action and explains every decision. After four days he will have operated on 40 patients and passed his knowledge and expertise on to another group of medical staff, eager to put into practice what they have learned.
The patients that come to the clinic travel for miles to reach Dr Mengiste’s team. Dr Mengiste insists: “the operations make a big difference to the lives of my patients. Most of them have suffered a long time, often since birth. It may be a cleft palate that makes a baby unable to eat, talk or later, go to school. It may be a burn that has left a child unable to walk or to hold things.”
More than 60% of the patients waiting in line are children. Among those awaiting surgery is four-month-old Angelina, whose mouth and nostrils are badly disfigured due to a cleft lip and palate. Angelina’s mother carried her for six hours to the nearest bus stop to bring her to the Amref Health Africa team in Moshi. Angelina cannot be breastfed because of her cleft lip and palate – her mother has to feed her milk and porridge drop by drop. Angelina is first on the operating table. As with all his operations, Dr Mengiste explains to observing medical students what has caused the condition, answers their questions and talks them through the surgery and after care.
This simple operation transforms Angelina’s life. Her mother is overjoyed by the results. “Before the operation I had so many worries that she would not survive, have friends or find a husband. Now I am sure she will live a normal, happy life.”
Next in line is a boy who injured his hand by falling into an open cooking fire. His little fingers were badly burned and have not healed well – his forefinger is now attached to his thumb by scar tissue. Nearly 99% of Tanzanians cook on open fires. Too often children fall into fires or scald themselves with boiling liquid. If the burns are not treated, they form thick cobwebs of scar tissue, causing crippling deformities, making the simplest of tasks such as dressing or eating, impossible.
During surgery Dr Mengiste separates the boy’s thumb and finger so they move independently again. Such a small operation will make an enormous difference to this little boy’s life. While recovering from surgery, the boy tells Dr Mengiste he is looking forward to going back to school and being able to write like other children in his class.
Dr Mengiste and his team spend their lives travelling to remote rural hospitals. The challenges of performing these surgeries in such hospitals are immense. Water supplies are often scarce, surgical facilities and basic medical equipment are poor or non-existent, and power cuts happen every day.
Despite these challenges, over the past year the Flying Doctors conducted a total of 153 visits to 117 remote, rural hospitals in eight countries, conducting 11,686 patient consultations and 2,377 surgeries.