Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland medics who brought hope to the heart of Africa

BY JOANNE SWEENEY

It may be the most populated country in Africa, but Nigeria owes a debt of thanks to tiny Northern Ireland.

While this oil-rich country is massive, its surgical care of cardiac patients falls shockingly behind healthcare here.

Only 150 open-heart surgeries have been performed on critically ill patients – who could not afford to pay for the treatment – over the past 30 years.

Now one of its hospitals can offer life-saving surgery through the expertise and compassion of a volunteer team from Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital.

It had been 15 years since the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH) in Enugu had performed cardiac surgery in this military-controlled country.

Then consultant surgeon Oc Nzewi led a medical mission of cardiac care staff from the RVH to Enugu to reopen the surgical unit, saving four lives there in June.

The local team – hailed as heroes by the patients they saved and the staff they trained – has pledged to return next March to help more people.

The nine volunteers, made up of anesthetists, theatre technicians and theatre and intensive care nurses, gave up their annual leave to reopen the unit and train local staff, working from 8am to 11pm for a fortnight. "I can't thank my colleagues enough for their dedication and expertise," said Mr Nzewi, who is organising a charity for future trips.

"There is virtually no cardiac surgery in Nigeria due to the political situation and the difficulties.There is about one surgery for every one million people.

"Unless you are very rich, you don't get the surgery. People there who could be saved just die."

Compelled to quit Nigeria after training in the 1990s, Mr Nzewi had long wanted to do something about the lack of cardiac surgery in his home country.

And after his lecture visit to the Nigerian Cardiac Society last year, he was challenged to act. He explained: "To do nothing was no longer an option. The first open heart surgery in black Africa was in 1974. They worked for 10 years and then they had to stop. Since then, only 150 surgeries had been performed."

he was later introduced to a colleague in the United States who pledged his support.

Part of an international team of surgeons from the USA, Canada, and the UK, Mr Nzewi performed the first open-heart surgery in Nigeria for years on a pilot mission in March.

When he returned to Belfast, he suggested the UNTH hospital was a suitable site to be reopened to his colleagues and found them eager to take part in the mission, which was funded by the VOOM Foundation.

"It was a most challenging but rewarding experience and now they are asking 'when are you coming back?'" he added.

The team performed operations on five patients, with four of them making "miraculous" recoveries.

BACKGROUND

The expert cardiac care surgery team from Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital which undertook a medical mission to Nigeria to perform open-heart surgery was led by consultant surgeon Mr Oc Nzewi. His team included Dr Chris Austin, Dr Bharathi Varadarajan , Tess Fundano, Lisa Scullion, Carol Ann Ryan, Eanan Harkin, Clair Rice, Laura Postlewaite and Godwin Omale. Mr Nzewi hopes to recruit volunteers for another mission next March and is raising funds for his charity, Friends of Nigeria, Belfast RVH's Save The Heart mission.

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