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NeuroNow - Mission to Africa

NeuroNow Spring 2011

Mission to Africa

Date: June 1, 2011


Benjamin Carson, Allessandro Olivi, Patrick Bankah
Benjamin Carson (left) and Alessandro Olivi (right) helped mentor neurosurgeon Patrick Bankah (center) at Johns Hopkins after meeting him at a medical mission in Ghana.

With all the recent talk about health care reform, it can be difficult to remember that America is a land of medical plenty compared with much of the rest of the world. We’re a nation of copious medical supplies and have plenty of well-trained specialists. Only under the most extreme circumstances, such as an extraordinary natural disaster, do our physicians have to worry about lack of water or electricity.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case in some countries, including Nigeria and Ghana, two destinations that Johns Hopkins neurosurgeons, neurologists, anesthesiologists, nurses and others visited on a medical mission trip.

On a Saturday in early November 2009, the group flew into Benin City in Nigeria, a country with one neurosurgeon for every 10 million people. “There are fewer than 10 neurosurgeons in all of Nigeria,” says neurosurgeon George Jallo, who took part in the mission. “Here at Hopkins, we have 21 neurosurgeons.”

After the team settled into their accommodations, they immediately began preparing for one of the key assignments of the mission: performing much-needed operations on patients who had no access to trained neurosurgeons and no money to pay them. Over the course of a week at University of Benin Teaching Hospital, the team performed 22 procedures. Conditions were often challenging, though the Hopkins doctors learned workarounds—bringing headlamps into operating rooms, for example, to provide light if electricity failed.

Between procedures, Hopkins doctors, nurses and other care providers did rounds with their local colleagues and gave informal lectures, providing valuable training the local staff could use long after their foreign colleagues had returned home.

At the end of the week, the Hopkins team headed next to Accra in Ghana, a country with 1 neurosurgeon for every 3 million people. The drill was the same, and conditions were similarly challenging. At the Korle Bu Hospital, mission volunteers completed 13 operations despite the challenges of water shortages, aging equipment and limited supplies.

By the end of the mission, Hopkins neurosurgeons had not only changed the lives of local doctors and patients, they’d also established an ongoing collaboration with a Ghanian neurosurgeon named Patrick Bankah. Just three years out of his residency, Bankah was interested in becoming a pediatric neurosurgeon, but no training existed in Ghana. Seeing promise in the young physician, neurosurgeon and Ghana mission lead member Alessandro Olivi arranged for Bankah to come to Hopkins for an informal observership. Last summer, Bankah worked with neurosurgeons including Jallo, Olivi and Benjamin Carson, receiving mentorship and learning new techniques by watching them operate.

“After just three months observing how these skilled surgeons work,” Bankah  says, “I’ve changed the way I operate.” He plans to return this summer for a formal one-year fellowship.

Hopkins neurosurgeons and their colleagues headed back to Africa for a mission to Eldoret, Kenya, in November of last year, and now they’re planning this year’s medical mission.

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