“The way these things usually go wrong”, says the surgeon, muffled through his green mask, “is when you don’t take out enough bone”.
Several months ago in the deepest darkest English winter, I decided that I wanted to have an interesting summer holiday. To do something useful, something exciting, maybe have a bit of an adventure. Some emails, a grant application and some disorganised packing later, here I am. In the CURE paediatric orthopaedic hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
CURE is a private hospital. Operations are performed mainly by local Ethiopian doctors trained at Addis medical school, but funding comes from external donors – national and international. The hospital is relatively small and quiet, the equipment is good and there’s plenty of time. The waiting list, though, is long.
Children come from all over the country for specialist operations they can’t get elsewhere. One very common presentation is clubfoot, a congenital condition that means the foot (or feet) turn down and inwards. At home this would be treated early using combinations of foot supports, braces and special shoes, but here the kids have no choice but to walk, and years of walking means that the bones deform. If they’re lucky enough to get to CURE they can have corrective surgery. Much of the problem with clubfoot is in the tendons and ligaments, so they have ingenious surgeries such as Achilles tendon lengthening, posterior medialis release or anterior tibial tendon transfer. If the bones are deformed they might have a triple arthrodesis, which involves cutting out a wedge of bone in the foot, tearing out the cartilage with pliers and letting the bones fuse in a new position.
I’ve been known to be squeamish about surgery. Hey, this is the blog of a medical student with needle phobia, right? I was fully prepared to come here, the strange medical student from the UK, and faint in the OR while watching something hilariously minor. But I’ve been fine. Actually I’ve watched some of the most gruesome things I could have imagined: a little girl with osteogenesis imperfecta having her femur sawn in two and rejoined with a metal rod; a total hip replacement; a 13 year-old boy having his entire back opened up to remove 11lb of lipomas. I even helped sew a skin graft onto a little boy’s hand, metal rods drilled into each tiny finger to keep them straight – and for some reason I’m just fascinated, and awed.
Surgery here seems simple, and necessary, and utterly life changing. I can see exactly why some people like it so much.