I have just returned from an amazing experience in Uganda, where I had the privilege of participating in a medical mission that treated nearly 3,000 patients. The people we treated came from near and far, some traveling for days over hundreds of miles, just for the rare opportunity to get some medical care. The team, sponsored by Operation Heal Africa Foundation, was made up of seventeen Americans, and many Ugandan physicians, nurses and volunteers, who strove to provide a broad cross-section of medical care including general medicine, pediatrics, eye care, gynecology and surgical services. The most important volunteer on our team, in my humble unbiased opinion, was my daughter who plans to pursue a career in medicine. We mostly treated the common problems seen everywhere, but also had the opportunity to treat illnesses rarely found in the U.S. such as Malaria and Tuberculosis. Several members of our team saw problems most American physicians have never seen such as tertiary Syphilis and Elephantiasis. Of course there were the expected cultural idiosyncrasies to overcome. The equatorial heat and humidity were oppressive. The constant hanging smoke from burnt garbage made one long for the comparatively crystal clean air of smoggy Los Angeles. What a world for a Beverly Hills Plastic Surgeon, http://www.mybestplasticsurgeon.com, to find himself in!
The mission took place in Bombo, a small town located about an hours drive from Kampala, Uganda’s teaming capital city. Like most of the populated areas in Uganda, Bombo is basically an oversized village, situated along the country’s main road. Its people, who are predominantly Muslim, survive by subsistence living in an agrarian economy. Survival seemed to be measured in days rather than years, despite a country that appeared to be rich in natural resources. In spite of Uganda’s natural wealth, most basic necessities have become precious commodities, with proper medical care being the scarcest of all.
Uganda’s medical care is administered through a national healthcare system that is minimally supplemented by private care. Considering the current debate raging in our own country over whether to institute a national (aka socialized) health care system, I felt the acute timelines of having a front row seat to witness the extreme adversity caused by the bureaucracy and financial strains such a system creates. Bureaucratic indifference and inflexibility turned out to be our biggest obstacle to operating on any of the 3,000 people who needed it. My role as a Plastic Surgeon, http://www.mybestplasticsurgeon.com , was to treat soft tissue tumors, burn victims, chronic open wounds, hernias, congenital deformities and extreme scars such as Keloids. Unfortunately, I spent far too much time trying to overcome the bureaucratic nightmare of securing reasonable operating facilities. Several days were spent operating in a makeshift operating room set up in a one room, free-standing concrete structure. Our resources were little more than injectable anesthesia and the natural light that intermittently streamed in through the windows. Water was brought in buckets filled from an old-fashioned outdoor hand pump.
What was most disturbing about Uganda’s health care system was the shear lack of basic equipment and supplies. The local hospital, a mere quarter of a mile from our temporary clinic, lacked such basics as an EKG machine. What little equipment they did have was technologically outdated by over 60 years. The ultimate irony was having the doctors and nurses from that hospital come to us for their own long deferred care.
I had the special privilege of experiencing some of Uganda’s unique natural wonders. I trekked thru the dense, overgrown jungle of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, lead by machete wielding, rifle toting guides to come just a few feet away from families of the rare Mountain Gorillas. Photographing a 500-pound, dominant Silverback gorilla or getting a rare portrait of a mother with twin infants was the experience of a lifetime. I also had the opportunity to see the rare tree-climbing lions of Ishasha.
I have much to tell you about my time in this strange and unusual country. In Part 2, I plan to tell you the stories of some of the patients I treated and some of the people I had the opportunity to meet. Come follow along with me on this adventure in my next newsletter.