African Mission Helps Patients, Raises Standards
The day after he arrived in the West African country of Cameroon, Johns Hopkins otolaryngology resident Ryan Li got his first taste of life in this developing country. Riding on dusty roads in a van hours away from the airport to the city of Bamenda, Li glimpsed scenes of local life flashing through the windows. Shacks and shanties lined the sides of the road, many appearing to be abandoned until someone stepped outside. Though many of these houses had electricity, those farther from the main roads were missing this modern convenience, Li says.
“There’s clearly a lot of poverty,” he says.
These were the places, he adds, from which many of the patients he saw over the next few days traveled. For two weeks last June, Li and his mentor, head and neck surgeon Wayne Koch, went on a medical mission to Cameroon, providing surgical care for complicated otolaryngology head and neck conditions and training local surgical residents to provide specialized treatment long after the Hopkins physicians returned home.
Though Koch had been to Cameroon for similar missions several times before, this was the first time a resident accompanied him.
For the 20 million residents of this country, there are only six otolaryngologist specialists. All except one, Koch says, are located in Cameroon’s two major cities—far from most people who need their expertise.
Several years ago, Koch established a relationship with the lone otolaryngologist at Mbingo Baptist Hospital in Bamenda, Everistus Acha. Koch has been to the hospital every year since 2008 to work with his colleagues there and train general surgery residents interested in treating head and neck cases.
Inviting Li to accompany him this year allowed the resident to help train his Cameroonian contemporaries while also getting a different kind of medical training himself. Over the course of the mission, the doctors treated 34 patients—a number, Koch says, that’s “not even the tip of the iceberg of what’s needed in this country.”
These patients had a broad range of conditions, including a patient with a cancerous tumor so large that it required removal of three-quarters of his upper lip. “Here in the United States,” Koch says, “this type of case would usually only happen if someone was a recluse. There, people just have no way to treat it.”
Working right alongside them were the local general surgery residents, says Li. Many were only in Cameroon to finish their surgical training and would take what they learned from the full-time faculty and volunteers, including the Hopkins doctors, back to their home countries.
Koch plans to continue taking residents with him on future medical missions, as funding allows—a practice that Li says would be a life-changing addition to his colleagues’ training. “I’m itching to go back,” Li says. “I’m always telling all of my colleagues, until they’re sick of hearing me, about how valuable it is for our education as developing surgeons to go there.”