A Surgical Time Machine

I suppose everyone, at one point or another, has dreamed of a time machine being possible.

Yes he played for the blackhawks...

There are plenty of amazing things that have happened that seemed crazy at the time, starting with the earth revolving around the sun and ending with watching a Stanley Cup Hockey game live on a computer in Cameroon.  If you would have told Bobby Orr back in 1961 that he could watch the Blackhawks win the Cup while on safari in Africa, he put you in a straight jacket himself.  And not just because he knew they wouldn’t win another cup until 2010, hopefully.  So one day I asked my buddy Ian, who publicly goes to school in “Boston” (his polite way of not saying MIT), is it possible in the most ridiculous sense that a time machine could ever be invented?

He said no, and then proceeded to explain the scientific reasoning why we’d have to travel faster than the speed of light or something, don’t quite remember, or comprehend.  I probably was just demoralized when he denied my dream of living history.  However, I am here to inform everyone that there is a back door to a time machine, traveling.

Dr. Georges starting operating at 6pm, and when I saw his first patient on what looked like a wider ironing board, I thought to myself, “This must have been just what surgery was like back in World War II, maybe even earlier!”  Frankly it’s not that much of a stretch.  The operating room had two tables (still resembling longer, wider ironing boards) separated by a makeshift curtain.  The room wasn’t equipped with lighting, so one of our guys Etienne, installed some electric circuitry a now there was a lightbulb dangling above one of the operating tables.  The other table was lit was a plugged in flood lamp.  The room had one window, two geckos, a door, and a tin roof.  The roof had been heated up by the sun so much during the day that it now felt like it was heating the operating room to an unbearable temperature.  Maybe it was that 12 people were in the OR.  And the walls were cement through and through.

Villagers who were treated

The temperature and overhanging humidity of the jungle were made worse by the smell of alcohol, bentadyne, sweat, blood, and occasional loss of sphincter control from the patient (they were in pain). Personally, I don’t know how I was able to stay in the OR for as long as I did, it was like an anti-therapeutic sauna.  Dr. Bwelle was in the OR from 6pm at night until 2pm the next day.  Just to make sure you are reading me, that is 20 straight hours operating on villagers.  For free.  In sweaty scrubs.  And this is after spending the previous night doing consults until 5am, sleeping, and then resuming at 9am.  Truly a selfless warrior.

Each surgery was a partnership between the surgeon and the patient.  The surgeon was trying to help the patient get better, and the patient was doing his or her best to let the surgeon do so.  Sometimes it wasn’t so easy.  Dr. Bwelle is able to operate on people that don’t have a very complicated surgery that might take extensive recovery and follow up, so he ends up doing a lot of tumor (most of which are benign lipomas) removals and inguinal hernia repairs.  All of the operations are done under local anesthetic only which as I’ve seen is definitely not ideal for the patient or surgeon, especially for a hernia, where Dr. Bwelle has to reach inside your body and pull your intestines out of your inguinal canal.  It’s very reminiscent of battles scenes from war movies where combat medics need to quickly aid a wounded soldier.  From outside the operating room, you can sometimes hear the moaning of a patient, but it’s not quite as loud over the sound of the electric generator.  Each patient suffers a little, but they do say no pain, no gain.  Dr. Bwelle did between 12-20 surgeries during that 22 hour period, he has it written down somewhere.

The Operating Room

Of those 16 or so surgeries, I got to lend an up close and personal hand.  Dr. Bwelle had me “scrub in” which basically just means that I’m wearing sterile gloves and am not touching anything except sterile equipment.  It’s not the usual scrubbing in like in an operating room.  Anyhow, I was first in charge of holding some of the clamps and dabbing away rushing blood from the incisions (we were removing a lipoma).

He says, “As soon as you see the first red blood cell, you’re taking it away.”

After making the initial incision and proceeded with the blunt dissection of surrounding adhesive tissue, he handed me the scalpel blade.  Mind you, blunt dissection is when you insert a scissor-looking tool into an incision, and spread the tips of the scissors.  The scissor are completely dull so they don’t actually do any cutting, they just physically are tearing away tissue.  It’s a lot more physically demanding than you’d think it’d be.  So then I was handed the scalpel.

Removing a lipoma

Dr. Bwelle pulled the lipoma so that the connective tissue was only remaining on the bottom face and it was under tension.  I then was instructed to cut the tissue away, and the lipoma would be free from this 63 year old man.   It really isn’t that hard when a great surgeon sets you up.  It’s kind of like in Happy Gilmore, just taaaap it in, tap tap taparoo.  I don’t mean to downplay the seriousness of surgery, I’m just trying to draw a common parallel.  Basically, my first surgery on a human, pretty cool.  Probably would never be allowed to do that in any first world country.

And then the power went out.  A few people went to fix the problem, meanwhile, Dr. Bwelle continued under the light of two cellphones, two headlamps, and the indiglo of my watch.  The power came back on in 15 minutes, but nothing phases anyone here in Africa.  It’s as if it comes with the territory; they expect to get stuck on the harsh roads and they expect the power to go out.  I guess that’s why they have a generator and a worry-free attitude.

All of the work that Dr. Bwelle puts into these free campaigns for villagers is just inspiring and makes you want to do anything you can to help.  He doesn’t have enough gauze.  He doesn’t have enough sutures.  He has a clever way of conserving needles without actually reusing them.  He has just enough drugs for each trip, but not the money to pay for them.  Just for a quick perspective, all the money that was raised here, $2600, was able to pay for all of the surgical supplies, medical supplies, syringes, needles, and medications for that ENTIRE weekend campaign.  That $2600 was able to provide about 20 people with potentially life-improving if not saving operations, and approximately 200 other people with medications to treat anything from serious bacterial infections to malaria.  That’s $13 a person on average, but obviously the surgeries are significantly more expensive than a few quinine tablets.

Dr. Usmana, Dr. Boukar, and Co.

I will continue on with more updates and stories in the coming days, but again I just want to reiterate what kind of a difference everyone made my contributing to this cause.  Dr. Bwelle thanks everyone and appreciates it more than you can imagine, these campaigns are his passion, his hobby, and his life.  There is much more work to do to make these medical missions sustainable from a financial perspective.  Dr. Bwelle has so much passion and energy, it becomes contagious and he is able to inspire others to give their best.  The only limiting factor preventing him from doing all that he can is money and supplies.  So in case you haven’t made a donation and would like to, there is still an opportunity to do so HERE.  Until next time, au revoir et merci!

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