Trip Report, Sierra Leone, Tom Johnson, Jr., Africa Surgery, Inc. (ASI)

By Michael Ricciardelli
In Global Health
March 13, 2012
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[Ed. note: I had the honor of meeting Tom Johnson a few years back, here at Seton Hall Law when I was still a student and he held a fundraiser through the school. AfricaSurgery, Inc. does God’s work– and I’m well pleased to publish his updates here on HRW. With the help of others, he does a lot– with very little.]

October 27, 2011 – February 15, 2012

Umu Sesay was brought to us by a Catholic missionary priest in 2007.  Her small, seven-year-old spine was so deformed by a tuberculosis infection that I could hardly believe she was still able to stand and to walk around.  We had Umu complete a six-month medical regimen to cure her TB, and we sent her to Ghana in April of 2008 for surgery by a team from the Foundation of Orthopedics and Complex Spine (FOCOS).   Unfortunately, Umu’s chest cavity was so compressed that she was unable to reach the minimum breathing required by the anesthesiologist before she could be cleared for surgery.   But Umu held onto the small plastic device used to measure her inhalation capacity, and she practiced breathing through it after her return to Sierra Leone.  By January, 2010 her persistence had paid off.   She was finally able to make all four of the small plastic balls rise up to the top of a plastic tube, when she inhaled through the testing device.  Umu was one of the four patients ASI sent from Sierra Leone to Ghana for spinal surgery by a FOCOS team in November, 2011.   All four surgeries were successful, and Umu and her three “surgery-mates” are out of pain and the danger of paralysis.  They all can now stand up quite straight.

Umu is finally able to stand straight thanks to surgery done in November, 2011, by the Foundation of Orthopedics and Complex Spine (FOCOS).

Umu is finally able to stand straight thanks to surgery done in November, 2011, by the Foundation of Orthopedics and Complex Spine (FOCOS).

Umu, whose parents are both deceased, is staying for one month at the ASI base in Freetown where she is receiving nutrient enriched food.  She is being tutored by an ASI helper who is himself a college student and who is a former school teacher.  Umu surprised us with how knowledgeable she is for an 11 year-old girl from a farming village.  Umu will soon be placed with the Cluny Sisters (Catholic missionaries) where she will live at their boarding school for the hearing impaired.  She will attend a primary school for hearing children, until the school year ends in July.  We expect that her spine will have healed by then so that she can be returned to her aunt in their home village.  Umu will no doubt be required to perform many chores, but hopefully she will be able to continue to attend school.

In November, a friend took me to a small village a couple of miles beyond his own to see a six-year-old boy with a “swelling and a sore in his mouth” which turned out to be a fast-growing tumor.  We took little Alimamy Kamara, along with his father, to be seen by the German orthopedic surgeons who were visiting Sierra Leone at that time and who had a reconstructive-plastic surgeon on their team.  The tumor was determined to be inoperable.  The team supplied us with palliative pain medication in the form of suppositories and a liquid formulation that could still be swallowed by the boy whose throat was closing up.   Alimamy died 13 days later. But our visit to his small village turned out to be a blessing for a young man who was also suffering with a painfully swollen face.

Alusine Kamara, age 20, before treatment for an abscess in his lower left jaw.

Alusine Kamara, age 20, before treatment for an abscess in his lower left jaw.

Alusine Kamara, age 20, had an abscess in his lower left jaw.  At first reluctant to accept our offer of help, Alusine’s increasing pain eventually forced him to allow us to take him 100 miles down to Freetown.  There the only oral surgeon in the country began what turned out to be a three-month-long process involving admission to the government hospital, heavy doses of intravenous and oral antibiotics and pain meds, and two surgeries.  Two more men completed similar treatments for abscessed jaws while I was in-country, and another man and one woman are to be admitted for oral surgery before the end of this month (Feb. 2012).  This will bring to 18 the number of persons for whom ASI has provided this rather expensive treatment.  The average cost is about $450.  Such abscess can be avoided by simply having decayed teeth pulled in time, saving much pain for the patient, and expense for us.  ASI did have the rotten molars of 55 persons pulled, between March, 2011, and February, 2012, at a cost of about $3.00 each.

While I was in-country, one of my helpers, Foday Tarawalie, brought 38 new patients with eye problems and 21 old cases in need of follow-up medications to the Baptist Eye Hospital in Lunsar.  Nine of the new cases received surgeries to regain their eyesight which was being obstructed by cataracts and/or pterygiums.   The 29 other new cases were medically treated for a variety of conditions including glaucoma and potentially-blinding infections.  ASI is continuing to fund Foday who is continuing to bring old and new patients to the hospital for sight-saving treatments.

Before I arrived in Sierra Leone, 48 surgeries to treat persons with hernias had already been done with funds provided by ASI since February, 2011.   While I was in country 11 more hernia repair surgeries were arranged and funded by ASI, including one for a seven-year-old boy.   Hernias remain a very prevalent health problem in Sierra Leone preventing thousands of men, boys and women from living productive lives.

New Jersey was well represented in Sierra Leone this year.  Dr. Nina Seigelstein returned to the Holy Spirit Hospital with a team including another gynecological surgeon, a scrub nurse, and a midwife.  They preformed 22 major surgeries on women brought to them by ASI, as well as for others who came on their own.   A detailed account can be found at the website: www.oneworldwomenshealth.org.

Boi Woody, was despondentbefore we moved her to the Holy Spirit Hospital.  There visiting  teams of reconstructive surgeons from Great Britain will be able to save her from losing her infected foot.

Boi Woody, was despondentbefore we moved her to the Holy Spirit Hospital. There visiting teams of reconstructive surgeons from Great Britain will be able to save her from losing her infected foot.

A member of the ASI board of directors, Sergio Burani, made a nine-day visit to Sierra Leone for the purpose of making a photo documentary of our work.  Sergio fell into stride with the ASI team.  At one point Sergio asked a vendor in an open-air market in the capital city, Freetown, if he could photograph him and his produce.  The man refused but was overheard by the market head-man who, after we explained our mission, insisted that Sergio “snap” away with his camera as much as he wanted to.  All the fuss caught the attention of a passerby who told us of his mother who was in the main government hospital.  Her family could not afford to pay for the medications needed to treat her badly-infected foot which had suffered a wound when a large mortis fell on it.  The young man explained that the entire congregation of their church had decided to pray for his mother to be healed as the only solution at hand.  We paid a visit to the hospital where we heard that the foot might have to be amputated.  We ended up transporting the woman and her daughter 100 miles up-country to our base near the Holy Spirit Hospital.  The woman is being treated as an out-patient for the infection and for a low hemoglobin blood count.  She is scheduled to receive a skin graft by the next reconstructive plastic surgery team that will visit the hospital in early March.  She will not have to lose her foot.

While there, Sergio also instructed six disabled students, three with severe hearing loss, and three post-operative spinal surgery secondary school boys, in the principles of photography and the use of six non-automatic, non-digital cameras which he donated.  One of the hearing-impaired students has already set off on his own, photographing students at their graduation ceremony.   He now is trying to scrape together the money to have his film developed in the hope that he will be able to reap a small profit selling his prints.

On behalf of all of the many Sierra Leoneans whom your generosity is allowing ASI to help, I want to thank you for your support and for your prayers.   I wish to extend special thanks to the Knights of Columbus George Washington Council 359, which gave ASI $3,000 last year.  This more than covered my personal travel and living expenses, enabling all of your donations to go directly to providing medical, surgical, and health care.  We at ASI will continue our work in Sierra Leone to the extent that our funds will allow.  If you are able to join us in this effort, checks can be made out to Africa Surgery, Inc., or to ASI, and mailed to:

Tom Johnson

Africa Surgery, Inc.

70 Macculloch Ave.

Morristown, NJ 07960

You can also donate on line at our website:  www.africasurgery.org

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