A few months ago we went to the Rafiki Ball at which we successfully bid for a trip to Tanzania that included spending time with the Rafiki Surgical Mission on one of their twice yearly visits. Our host Carolyn Bellamy had been before and promised us it would be the trip of a lifetime. It has lived up to that in every respect.
Since arriving in Mwanza on Lake Victoria we have been allowed to join the Rafiki team at the hospital even in the operating theatre. We have watched highly skilled plastic surgeons Andrew and Brigid at work with anaesthetists Andrew and Steve, scrub nurses Alice and Kathy, recovery nurse Jamie, nurses and organisers extraordinaire Taka and Lindy, physiotherapist Heather and Steve, a recent medical graduate. We have met young and not so young patients who have made the journey to Mwanza from up to 100s of kilometres away in the hopes of being able to have surgery performed by the Rafiki team. The team are all truly amazing. They work with the barest of facilities. The operating theatre is a small room with two operating tables so they can work on two patients at a time. Supplies including two purpose built anaesthesia units are all brought in about 20 suitcases from Perth. The suitcases are arranged around the theatre and the neighbouring supply room. After theatre, the patients are taken to a tiny recovery room with just two beds.
From there they are taken to two small wards where they sleep on mattresses on the floor. These rooms are an amazingly lively mix of children and their parents along with adults all waiting for surgery or recovering from surgery. Many of the operations are cleft lips and pallets and burns injuries. We have got to watch both. The cleft lips that we saw were transformed in less than an hour. It was especially rewarding to see a beautiful little girl have her lip closed and a 22 year old woman who was quite overwhelmed when she saw her new lip. The burns operations were more complicated and involved releasing joints in fingers, shoulders and even a hip where the skin had contracted following burns. These injuries are sadly all too common with open fires in the villages.
Following the release of the joints the skin is sown back together in a new 'Z' shape to allow normal movement of the joint and skin grafts are applied to exposed gaps. I have never seen surgery up close like this before and I have been amazed by how such large wounds can be closed up and stitched together so neatly. It is truly like watching artists at work. I also got to visit the ward and join Lindy and Heather playing with the children. While this is fun it is also an important part of their recovery. Heather is a great hit with bubbles and balloons all designed to train limbs to move again.
The team also spends a considerable amount of time here training local medical staff and students. The tiny operating theatre has been filled with people the whole time. This journey has been an amazing experience for us. We saw how a donation to Rafiki has a direct and real benefit for individuals who could never have afforded a much needed operation. These operations are truly life changing allowing these people to lead normal independent lives that might otherwise have not been possible. We have of course also been reminded again how lucky we are to live in a country where conditions like cleft lips are routinely treated within the first few months of life and where injuries such as burns occur less frequently and are treated immediately.
Special mention goes to the companies that support Rafiki particularly AngloGold Ashanti which employs 3000 Tanzanians at Geita Goldmine three and a half hours from Mwanza. They run a special program to bring local villagers to the Rafiki mission for surgery. Their community affairs officer Musa Shunashu personally brings the patients to Mwanza and plays a really important part in extending the good that Rafiki does as widely as possible. Of course Tanzania is also a great place for a holiday and we have already been to Zanzibar where we stayed at Asilia's Matemwe Retreat. From Mwanza we are looking forward to staying at the Serena Safari Lodges in the Serengeti and at Ngorongoro Crater, hoping we see lots of African wildlife! Then home on Qatar Airways. It has been an amazing privilege to be part of the Rafiki Surgical Mission and we would recommend it to anyone without hesitation.
Deidre Willmott and Michael Lishman
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