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Non-profit Volunteer Medical Group HEARTT – Making A Difference In Liberia

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Liberia’s highest referral and teaching hospital, the John F. Kennedy (JFK), is fast recovering from years of destruction, brought on by more than a decade civil war. Today, the JFK is up and running with specialized doctors and new and improved units. A major supporter of this recovery process is the Health Education and Relief Through Teaching

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HEARTT volunteer doctors and JFK officials in photo with Pres. Sirleaf at reception welcoming the Doctors

(HEARTT), a not-for-profit corporation.  HEARTT is based in the United States and has been engaged with the JFK since 2003, providing overall health care and health training.

HEARTT’s President, Dr. James Adama Sirleaf says the major aim of the organization is to sustain health care delivery by bringing in specialist doctors to teach “practice models” of medicine to practitioners in Liberia. Reflecting on his visit to Liberia in 2003, Dr. Sirleaf spoke of the desperate need for medical practitioners.

“As you know five years ago, there were roughly fifty to sixty doctors in the country. I realize the need was to get medical doctors here, teaching practical models of medicine” recalls Dr. Sirleaf, as he looks back on the dire state for health-care delivery in Liberia.

Today, with the help of HEARTT, there’s a functional trauma unit, Orthopedic and Pediatrics sections at the JFK, all staffed with volunteer doctors and contractors brought in by the non-profit organization. Currently, the group has over ten medical practitioners at the JFK.  These and other specialists come on a rotational basis, offering surgeries to patients and teaching medical school graduates,  residents, nurses and other practitioners how to ably deliver health care.

“HEARTT is here all the time; we expect to have somebody on the ground in different specialties all the time” says Dr. Sirleaf, an Emergency Room physician, based in the United States, as he explains how grounded the program has become over the years, owing to its impact on the health-care delivery system of Liberia.

Dr. Sirleaf, one of four sons of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, stresses the importance of the practical teaching program. He says it’s hard to practice medicine without watching and following the work of people who have been trained and have practiced for years.

One of those serving and teaching at the JFK is Dr. Justin Bird, a young African American from New York. Dr. Bird is an Orthopedic Surgeon, specialized in dealing with disorders in the skeletal system. He is volunteering with the HEARTT program for two years.

Dr. Bird joined the JFK team in September 2009 and has been administering care to trauma patients. These are patients with various degrees of fractures, mostly from accidents. Dr. Bird explained that he’s not only treating patients but teaching other practitioners how to quickly diagnose and take care of patients to avoid complications that could lead to amputations.

Seemingly upbeat about the success of HEARTT’s program, Dr. Bird notes a significant reduction in the number of amputations. He attributes the progress to training being provided to health practitioners.

Dr. Bird: “A lot of people have been trained and are working effectively despite the limited resources. For some of the cases we see, if we were in New York, we would have twenty surgeons, but here we have to create different protocols with the limited resources, and it worked and has helped cut down a lot of complications and the number of amputations.”

Despite the steady progress, the New York-based HEARTT volunteered orthopedic surgeon believes there is still more room for improvement, disclosing that more health personnel are being identified for training, in order to build a sustainable orthopedic program at the JFK.

Another critical area that has benefitted from HEARTT’s partnership with the John F. Kennedy Hospital is Pediatrics, the care and treatment of children. Through the partnership, Liberia now has a Nigerian pediatrician, Dr. Oku Emmanuel, who was brought in to help cater to the medical needs of the huge children population at the JFK.

While in Liberia, Dr. Emmanuel is expected to set up a viable pediatric program at the JFK and teach at the AM Dogliotti College of Medicine. He has already set out his priorities in achieving this goal.  First and foremost, he says, is giving children a voice by protecting their rights as they seek treatment. According to Dr. Emmanuel, children’s rights are usually abused by parents and medical practitioners when they are sick, and he has vowed to improve that trend.

The next priority for Dr. Emmanuel is to set up a system for children, involving the teaching of new protocols on how to effectively cater to them when they come to seek medical attention. The system takes into consideration the creation of a bigger and more conducive space for examination, treatment and admission of children.

As a volunteered HEARTT Pediatrician at Dogliotti, Dr. Emmanuel will train personnel in pediatrics, as there is no Liberian doctor specialized in the area. “When they get the lecture at the school, then they can come and we teach them the practical aspect also, ’cause medicine is practical, like apprenticeship, he states.  Dr. Emmanuel summarizes his mission in Liberia with the popular adage, “It’s better to teach someone how to fish than always giving that person fish.”

Among other medical personnel who are visiting Liberia on a short-term basis under the HEARTT program is Dr. David Knight, a German Surgeon, who performs general surgeries and conducts teaching session. Dr. Knight and his team view their service in Liberia as a wonderful experience.  “We are not only treating patients and teaching; we are also learning,” he admits.

Dr. Knight is leaving Liberia with one lesson–that doctors in America are spoiled with the varieties of equipment and gadgets, some of which they cannot do without. “The first time I entered surgery, I thought the JFK was lacking a lot; but after a few days, I noticed some of the fancy equipment we feel are important are not so important, and we can do perfect surgeries without them,” he noted. 

Like most institutions in the country, one of the major challenges at the hospital is the limited supply of electricity. Dr. Knight is hoping for an improvement in that sector, to ensure a stable and more secure electrical system at the nation’s premier hospital. He recalls an incident of power shortage just when he was about to do surgery. Such an incident, he warned, could be dangerous when one is in the middle of a critical surgery.

The experienced German Surgeon describes the medical team at JFK as wonderful and dedicated, but observed that they are doing a hard job because they lack role models.

“They don’t have teachers. A big part of learning surgery is having somebody to work with and learn from regularly,” said Dr. Knight. Touched by his experience, the HEARTT volunteer doctor is going back to America as a goodwill ambassador, to encourage more specialized doctors to volunteer with HEARTT and contribute to building a more sustained health practice at JFK.

Liberian doctors working with HEARTT volunteers also gained from the partnership. Dr. Robert Mulbah sees the program as rewarding and believes the interactive and cordial learning and teaching environment is enhancing the management of patients at JFK.

For the hospital’s General Administrator Dr. Wvannie Scott-McDonald, the service provided by HEARTT is immeasurable. HEARTT, Dr. Scott-McDonald says, “has made significant impact in improving our health-care delivery. You can’t just put dollars and cents to their work.”

Dr. Scott-McDonald disclosed that her administration and HEARTT are working towards branching out to other areas of medicine, including obstetrics and gynecology. She is hopeful that the programs will attract and expose young physicians and nurses to specialize in different fields of medicine.

The JFK boss Chief believes that in the long run, the Medical Center can have a sustained residency program for new doctors, in line with the hospital’s teaching mandate. HEARTT is by no means being left out of the implementation of this mandate, as it is already working with the JFK to develop standard curriculum for different medical specialties.

It is quite evident that strides are being made in Liberia’s health-care delivery system. Support by groups like HEARTT, buttressing this progress, goes a long way in helping to address some of the long-standing inadequacies in the nation’s health-care system. Liberia understandably, welcomes and appreciates such assistance to help improve the health needs of the country and provide the much needed health-care facilities for its people.

No wonder, then, that the Health Education and Relief Through Teaching (HEARTT) is making a difference in the Government’s efforts toward an improved and more efficient health-care delivery system for Liberia.

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