Paolo Sorelli reports
Operation Hernia Mission, St Vincent’s Hospital, Aliade, Nigeria. 27 October – 4 November 2013
When I first entertained the idea of volunteering for an Operation Hernia mission I had not imagined the incredible, eye-opening experience I was letting myself in for. Within 6 hours of emailing Professor Andrew Kingsnorth asking if I would be suitable for any upcoming missions I had received his enthusiastic and encouraging response, helpful advice, and plan of action to get me ready for a mission in November 2013.
Two months later I was ready and packed at Heathrow airport meeting for the first time members of my team destined for St Vincent’s Hospital, Aliade, and a Swiss team lead by Peter Nussbaumer, headed for St Mary’s Hospital, Okpoga, waiting to board the 6 hour flight to Abuja.
On our arrival, after a slightly tense passage through customs (thank you Peter and Andreas for your calm yet direct approach convincing the security officers to let us pass without unpacking all our equipment!) we were immediately welcomed warmly by Dr Ella, local coordinator and general practitioner in Abuja, and a small congregation of Sisters from our dioceses who accompanied the whole group to the local convent for refreshments before starting our 6 hour mini-van ride south to Aliade.
Our multinational team comprised: Prof. Giampiero Campanelli, Professor of Surgery and Secretary General of the European Hernia Society, from Milan, Italy; his trainee and assistant visiting from Romania, Cristina Sfeclan; Andreas Osterwalder, consultant general and laparoscopic surgeon from Lugano, Switzerland; Shambhu Yadav, consultant colorectal surgeon from Oban, Scotland; Mirjam Steiner, anaesthetic nurse practioner, who was part of the Okpoga Swiss team but who would be offering us anaesthetic services for one week before travelling on to join the Okpoga team for the second week; and finally myself, Paolo Sorelli, final year colorectal registrar on the South East Thames London rotation.
After a tiring journey we arrived at St Vincent’s Hospital to a sea of smiles and warm welcomes culminating in prayers, song and dancing to bring fortune to the mission. Immediately our Team leader Prof Campanelli struck up a strong rapport with our hosts as he too joined in with the dancing and singing! We were introduced to our theatre team: Peter, Benser, Simon, Frances and Lawrence who were keen to get us to theatres to check out the equipment. They were so overjoyed when Andreas unpacked a diathermy machine that he’d brought with him as a donation, to add to the two already in the hospital, which meant we could have three operating tables running simultaneously allowing us to complete the largest number of operations in the week of any mission so far.
Sister Mary, head matron, showed us to our rooms that were spotlessly clean and very comfortable. Most rooms had running water, and the mosquito nets across every window meant that no mosquitos were seen indoors throughout the stay. There were electric fans in each room that gave respite from the heat, which fell to comfortable levels at night.
Next morning the routine was set immediately, as Prof Campanelli organised and led our team with great enthusiasm, encouragement and dynamism. There were already patients who had been put on the waiting list during the previous mission, and these patients were checked and immediately put in line for surgery. A further 150 patients were screened throughout the 5 days, and 123 patients were operated on with a total of 147 procedures performed. Screening new patients for potential surgery started at 0730 and operating started at 0800 after morning prayers, finishing around 1830. The operating rooms could get extremely hot at times without the air conditioning, but luckily this was fully functional most of the time thanks to a trusted generator when electricity failed.
Thanks to the untiring enthusiasm and will to work of the operating team who ensured quick turn around times and round the clock sterilisation of equipment we kept up an extremely high and efficient pace throughout the week. Lunch was brought to us in theatres to save time, and staggered so operating continued without breaks. Prof Campanelli operated on all the children that Mirjam was happy to anaesthetise. Mirjam deserves particular mention for managing so many cases safely and efficiently with minimal equipment.
In the evenings Sister Mary always had cold beers ready in the freezer and delicious meals prepared. One evening after surgery we challenged the children, who were an integral part of our day and always keen to help and play, to a football match, much to the adults’ amusement! The children were overjoyed when we bought 10 footballs to share between them. On a number of nights Andreas would entertain us with magic tricks that so captivated our attention. This, as well as the evening tipple of whisky that he and Shambhu supplied, kept our minds and stomachs in tip-top condition!
Our stay culminated on our last night with a large celebration and party that the whole village attended. Everyone was given an opportunity to show his or her appreciation and gratitude for making the mission so successful. In such a short time, circumstance and good will had bound all of us so well together, that it was truly emotional to have to say goodbye, but so satisfying to have worked together to ensure such a successful mission. We all worked extremely well and effortlessly together. It was an absolute privilege to be part of such a wonderful group.