Mentored medicos bring it home
Ethiopian surgeon Yayu Mekonnen knows that the skills he is learning at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital will be in urgent demand when he returns to Africa next year.
There are an estimated 420,000 children in Ethiopia under the age of 15 with diagnosed or undiagnosed heart conditions.
“They need this care and they need it desperately,” Dr Mekonnen said.
Dr Mekonnen studied in Ethiopia under one of just two cardiac paediatricians in the country before travelling to Israel with the charity Save a Child’s Heart and then to Melbourne to complete his training.
“(Melbourne has) one of the top-notch cardio surgical units in the world,” he said.
While his mentor helped him decide he wanted to specialise in paediatric cardiac surgery, it wasn’t until Dr Mekonnen went to Israel that he first watched a cardiac surgery being performed.
Save a Child’s Heart has treated almost 5000 children from 57 countries since it was founded in 1995 and was recently awarded the United Nations Population Award for its contribution to humanity.
Its doctors have examined more than 9500 children in cardiology clinics in countries including Angola, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Jordan, Moldova, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Ukraine, Zambia and Zanzibar.
Chief executive Simon Fisher said the teams on missions saw about 300 children over three or four days and treated them regardless of nationality, religion, politics or financial status.
“(The missions are) pretty challenging because you know we can’t help all the children,” Mr Fisher said.
“Some will come to the clinic who have missed the opportunity, missed the boat. There are always many more children than we can actually assist.”
Mr Fisher, however, has faith in the training they provide for local medical practitioners and the partnerships the non-profit organisation forms with local ministries of health.
“To an extent it’s a drop in the ocean, but it’s a very positive drop,” he said.
Israel was still a young country and had experienced its own doctors travelling overseas for training.
“Many did come back to build up the health system,” he said. “I think that’s pretty much the model of Save a Child’s Heart — save as many children as we can.”
Dr Mekonnen agreed the training of local doctors was essential for developing countries. “You can always keep bringing kids to Israel but in the longrun it’s more effective if you can teach the local doctors to do the procedures themselves,” he said.
Yayu Mekonnen with Save a Child’s Heart chief Simon Fisher: ‘It’s more effective if you can teach the local doctors.’