Two suitcases filled with surgical instruments arrived at a clinic in Sierra Leone earlier this month.
The scalpels, scissors, clamps, forceps, probes, hemostats and retractors had been sitting in storage at Buffalo General Medical Center after being carted over there years ago from the now-demolished Millard Fillmore Hospital at Gates Circle.
When Dr. Songor Koedoyoma, the new surgeon at the Sierra Leone clinic, saw the gleaming stainless steel tools, he declared that the clinic now had “the most elite operating theater” in the entire country.
It’s just one little example of how small donations from wealthy nations such as the United States can help the impoverished in other parts of the world, said Dr. Myron Glick of the Jericho Road Community Health Center on Buffalo’s West Side.
The local health care center helped a refugee from Sierra Leone who had been resettled in Buffalo return to her country to start the clinic in Kono, a region that until last year had just two doctors for 500,000 people.
“What we have that we just take for granted, you’ve got to see it to believe it,” Glick said.
Phebian Abdulai is the former refugee who returned to Sierra Leone to start the clinic. Now, 14 months after opening the Adama Martha Memorial Community Health Centre, she said that it is thriving and growing. About 15,000 people have received medical treatment, she said, and more than 60 babies have been born at the clinic.
“It’s going very well and very strong,” she said in a phone interview from the City of Koidu. This spring, a celebration was held to mark the one-year anniversary.
“The entire community was there,” Abdulai said.
Two years ago, Abdulai was in Sierra Leone, laying the groundwork for the clinic when the Ebola crisis hit.
It marked a difficult time for Abdulai and the people who were eager for the clinic to open. Her family in Buffalo begged her to return, but she was determined to continue with her dream of starting a clinic in her home country. It was to be named after her mother, who had been a midwife.
It was not meant to be a place for treating people with the deadly Ebola virus, but with the disease spreading through Sierra Leone, there was the possibility that someone with Ebola could show up.
Glick traveled there in fall 2014 to help Abdulai set up a protocol for safely screening patients with Ebola. If anyone did have the virus, a system was set up to get the patient to a proper medical facility equipped to handle the disease.
Abdulai’s clinic opened in February 2015. Luckily, there were no cases of Ebola, which the World Health Organization has declared is no longer spreading in Sierra Leone. Abdulai herself had a little scare when she came down with a fever, but it ended up being malaria and was treated without any problems.
A safe place for surgery
Word about the clinic spread quickly throughout the region where medical care, particularly in rural areas, is scarce. They were treating hundreds of patients every month and began doing outreach work in nearby villages to try to help people who couldn’t get to the clinic.
Abdulai and Glick soon realized that there was a need to provide surgery at the clinic.
One of the most common ailments was hernias, which occur when the intestines push through a weak spot or tear in the abdominal wall.
In First World countries, they are easily treated with a simple operation. But in places such as Sierra Leone, Glick said, the surgeries are too expensive and people with hernias endure tremendous discomfort as the protrusions worsen.
In fact, around the world, 8 million people die or are injured every year because of lack of access to surgery, according to a recent New York Times opinion article by two global health experts. Five billion people, they said, don’t have access to “safe, affordable and timely surgery.”
While the Kono clinic couldn’t provide hernia operations, the staff there came up with a plan through which patients would be prepped for surgery at the clinic, driven to a hospital for the operation, and then brought back right after the procedure to recover at the clinic. Patients were asked to provide a third of the cost.
The clinic also recognized a need for a place to be able to provide emergency cesarean sections.
Sierra Leone has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. One in eight women risk dying during childbirth, according to a 2009 Amnesty International Study. Less than half of all babies in Sierra Leone are born at home without any assistance, even a midwife.
Abdulai wanted the clinic to be a safe place for women to give birth. Last year, more than 60 healthy babies were delivered at the clinic.
But two babies didn’t make it. In one case, the umbilical cord prolapsed, and in the other, the baby was lying transversely, or across, the mother’s abdomen, rather than with the head down or up. The clinic helped the women get to a hospital for a C-section. “In both cases, it took 10 hours to get them into surgery,” Abdulai said.
But it was too late.
They began making plans for adding a surgical wing, and a room about the size of an office conference room was outfitted for surgery. One of the most important additions was air conditioning.
The clinic also hired a surgeon, Koedoyoma, who had just recently graduated from medical school in Sierra Leone and had some surgical experience.
However, the clinic did not have surgical instruments.
Glick called his friend, Dr. Alan R. Posner, a surgeon at Buffalo General who goes on medical missions to the Dominican Republic, to see if he could help in any way with the new surgical wing.
Posner found out about the leftover tools from Gates that were sitting in storage at Buffalo General. They had been among the many boxes of medical equipment brought over after Gates had been decommissioned. Most of the equipment had already been distributed through a charity to other countries in need.
Posner went to the administration at Kaleida Health and got the green light, and the tools were packed up and sent to Sierra Leone.
He recently saw a photograph of the surgeon and Chris Welch – an American nurse from Texas who volunteers at the clinic to help train and mentor the team there – with the tools all lined up on a blue towel.
“It makes my heart sing to see that the stuff is getting used,” Posner said.
On April 15, the first surgeries were performed at the clinic in Kono: nine hernia operations. Nine more were scheduled for Friday.
Plans for a second clinic
Now that the surgery wing is up and running, Abdulai wants to concentrate on doing more outreach to the five villages near Koidu.
Elsewhere, Jericho Road is helping start a second clinic, this one in the Congo with the support of refugees from the region now living in the Buffalo area. Jericho Road is working with the New Hope Center, an organization that’s providing counseling and therapy to children traumatized by the war that ravaged the region and left millions dead. The hope is that the Congo clinic will open this fall.
Jericho Road is holding a gala June 10 at the Adam’s Mark Hotel in downtown Buffalo to raise money for the two clinics. To register for the gala, go to http://jrchc.org/support/events.aspx.