Dispatches from the Africa Mercy #3: The Heroes of Africa
March 3, 2016, 22:00: At the end of the third consecutive long operating day, I leave the port of Tamatave for the first time to have dinner at one of the local restaurants with Dr. Heuric Rakotomala, one of four practicing pediatric surgeons in Madagascar, a country of 24 million people. Heuric has come to the Africa Mercy to operate with me for three days. In addition to providing me with a chance to collaborate with local surgeons and learn from them, our joint work has very special significance. (Left-hand photo: Dr. Sherif Emil and Dr. Heuric Rakotomala operating together on the Africa Mercy).
In late 2008, I arrived at the Montreal Children’s with an ambitious dream, to integrate a low-income country rotation into our pediatric surgical training program. I felt it would give our fellows a unique perspective on pediatric surgical practice in resource-poor areas of the world, and an appreciation for our own resources. With the help of Dr. Dan Poenaru, who had established East Africa’s first pediatric surgical training program in Kijabe, Kenya, we succeeded in creating the rotation and sending Dr. Robert Baird as our first fellow in 2010. The program then evolved into an exchange of fellows between the Montreal Children’s and Bethany Kids Kijabe Hospital. Five of our fellows have gone to Kijabe, and we’ve hosted five of theirs. Heuric was the first graduate of the Kijabe program. Working alongside him on the Africa Mercy in his home country is profoundly satisfying, a fruit of a unique collaboration between North and South.
Heuric is also one of the unsung heroes of Africa, striving to provide pediatric surgical care in the most difficult of circumstances, with major deficiencies in equipment, personnel, funding, and resources. Prior to arriving on the Africa Mercy, he had traveled to several cities to take care of children who needed his expertise. His trip back home will take two days on difficult, dangerous, winding roads through this vast country. His commitments to his profession, his patients, and his country are unquestionable. (Photo right: Dr. Sherif Emil and Dr. Heuric Rakotomala with ward nurses during rounds).
Heuric also adds a unique flavor to all our work, particularly ward rounds. The patients are proud to see one of their own among the surgical team. His ability to speak the Malagasy language helps break barriers. The nursing staff welcome him warmly and are grateful for his presence. I am comforted, having him with me in the most difficult and challenging cases. In a continent where children die by the thousands every day of completely curable surgical diseases and anomalies, Heuric and those like him are Africa’s best hope for improved pediatric surgical care.
Dr. Sherif Emil is a pediatric surgeon and Director of the Division of Pediatric General and Thoracic Surgery at the Montreal Children's Hospital. Over the 2 weeks, he will be part of the volunteer crew of the Africa Mercy, currently docked in Tamatave, Madagascar. The Africa Mercy is the world's largest civilian hospital ship dedicated to bringing hope and healing to tens of thousands of the world's impoverished populations.