St. Luke’s surgeons’ mission to Africa yields global perspective
St. Luke’s University Health Network surgeon and teacher Richard Sharpe, MD, has made a dozen meaningful and memorable “mission” trips to the Mbingo Baptist Hospital in the Central African nation of Cameroon.
If he’s able, he’d like to make at least a dozen more there, where there’s always a need for doctors, physician education and medical equipment.
On Nov. 9, the 58-year-old general surgeon and founder of St. Luke’s International Medical Program (SLIMP), was to leave the comforts of Pennsylvania for a three-week stay at the 500-bed regional hospital in northwest Cameroon.
As an attending and teaching physician, he’ll be accompanied by St. Luke’s fourth-year surgical resident Martin Lo Sasso, MD, who will earn credit from the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) for this intense time of learning and treating patients there.
“I’m over the moon to be going on this trip,” says Dr. Lo Sasso. “I’m looking forward to putting my surgical skills to good use and hope the experience will help me develop a global perspective on the practice of medicine.”
Whether they’re repairing a patient’s hernia, performing trauma surgery on a motorcycle accident victim or removing a cancerous section of colon side-by-side in the OR, while guiding an African surgeon-in-training, Dr. Sharpe says their efforts will have far-reaching impact.
“What I do there every day is multiplied many times over,” says Dr. Sharpe. “When you save someone’s life there, you save their family, and even village, too.”
Their days will be a blur of non-stop activity often lasting 12-15 hours. Rounding on hospitalized patients, teaching physicians and assessing clinic patients take up most of the morning. They’ll be in the operating room throughout the rest of the day and may have on-call duties and emergencies to treat well into the night.
Meals are eaten with the local doctors and nurses, along with other volunteer physicians from Europe, the United States and other developed countries. St. Luke’s surgeons often collaborate on cases with providers from the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins.
“It’s not a vacation but it’s very rewarding,” Dr. Sharpe says, adding, “In three weeks, I do as much work as I do in three months here.” He hopes to return there several times in 2023.
A retired Navy surgeon who served on the Hospital Ship Comfort in 2010, treating victims of the earthquake in Haiti, Dr. Sharpe saw first-hand the devastating effects of poverty and the shortage of medical supplies and expertise, which inspired him to start the SLIMP program soon after joining St. Luke’s.
The non-profit SLIMP program received accreditation from the ACGME in 2014 for training general surgery residents and subsequent approval for OBGYN and family practice residents. Seasoned doctors and young trainees in these programs at St. Luke’s often make the trip to Cameroon along with Dr. Sharpe, who tries to go two or three times a year.
Abby Gotsch, MD, St. Luke’s chief surgical resident, made the trip as a fourth-year medical student in 2017 with a team of St. Luke’s physicians. She calls her month there “eye-opening,” adding, “It was one of my favorite experiences in medical training.”
The doctors will take along three suitcases of stainless-steel surgery instruments to the struggling hospital. These are items that have passed their expiration dates in the U.S. but are in perfect, usable condition.
“We tend to waste so much in this country that can be used elsewhere in places of need,” Dr. Sharpe said. “Taking along equipment in good condition adds years to its useful life.”
In the past, St. Luke’s has donated an ambulance, endoscopy equipment and mechanical ventilators to the hospital, all of which are still functioning.
The trip’s expenses are covered by a mix of funds from St. Luke’s Department of Medical Education, churches and private donations. The total cost for each physician’s travel, room and board and miscellaneous expenses ranges $2,500 - $2,700.
They sacrifice time away from their patients and colleagues at St. Luke’s and family along with accepting the arduous travel, long workdays and occasional threat of violence that can arise if the anti-government rebels are nearby.
Dr. Sharpe and his colleagues from St. Luke’s (some 25-30 have gone to Mbingo, many several times) take the risks while earning the personal and professional satisfaction that the trips bring. And many keep going back to care for the acutely and chronically ill and injured local patients who live to an average age of 53.
“It’s immensely rewarding to take care of a population in need and invest time in training the next generation to care for them,” Sharpe said.
Certain he’ll make another trip to Cameroon, Dr. Sharpe leaves clothes and other personal items behind at the hospital’s lodging quarters.
And when he’s back in the United States, after returning to his family in Bethlehem, and his patient care and teaching duties at St. Luke’s, Sharpe is soon planning and raising funds for the next mission that the St. Luke’s International Medical Program will make to the desperately poor country that needs so much.