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Volunteering in Ethiopia as an Orthopedic Surgeon

Emergency department at hospital in Ethiopia

My trip to Ethiopia as a volunteer orthopedic surgeon was a wonderful experience. When I arrived to the Black Lion Hospital in Addis Ababa, I got my first glimpse of the living and working conditions in Ethiopia.  A typical room had eight patient beds and nursing assistance was very limited; typically, two of these rooms were assigned to only one nurse.  The sinks didn’t provide running water in the hospital rooms so I couldn’t wash my hands in between seeing patients. However, antiseptics were available in the nursing carts. Bedside care was dependent on family members, who changed the bedding and went to the hospital pharmacy to buy all of the medications, including any intravenous antibiotics. Given what I was in for, I jumped right in.

In Ethiopia, I realized the joy to just be a doctor.  The routine and ineffective distractions, and the static that comes with our complicated system back home were irrelevant here.  Don’t get me wrong – there are many struggles in Ethiopia, but they are different. They are fundamental, basic and short-term. They are visible.  Rather than asking, “Will your insurance not authorize or approve this,” I find myself asking, “How do we control bleeding without electrocautery? What happens if the electricity goes out and there is no backup? Do we have the right instruments and orthopedic implants?”

While I found myself in frequent situations having to ask these questions, I was and remain equally inspired that there are individuals and organizations that specifically address these basic needs outside of the U.S.  In preparing for my sabbatical, I received guidance from my mentor, Peter Trafton, and a few AAOS (American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons) leaders such as Bill Stetson.  And, of course, I did my homework. I learned about SIGN (Surgical Implant Generation Network) and, with the help of its president, Dr. Lewis Zirkle, I contacted orthopedic surgeons at the Black Lion Hospital in Addis Ababa who made going there as easy as possible.  In addition, I learned of HemaClear for the World, a humanitarian program co-founded by our very own Dr. David Helfet, orthopedic surgeon, who donated several boxes of tourniquets (all of which I was able to pack in my suitcase!). These tourniquets came in handy in a few of the ancillary operating rooms where electricity was unreliable.

I made friends with some amazing doctors from around the world. I am so thankful that my first day Dr. Michael Laurence, an orthopedic surgeon from London, was there to generously and graciously share his perspectives as an outsider and an experienced volunteer.  He is committed to working overseas and is a major contributor of the textbook World Ortho and charitable organization World Orthopaedic and Concern.

It was especially refreshing to meet a select number of talented residents who were impressively well-read and polished.  I am excited that one distinguished star senior resident of Addis Ababa, Dr. Samuel Hailu, who happens to also be a big fan of HSS, will be visiting with us this fall. I am ecstatic that, so soon after my trip to Ethiopia, I am able to host and help sponsor his academic travels.

I love visiting other countries because it gives me an opportunity to be immersed into a different way of living.  What opened up to me was a culture that is communal, affectionate and kind. Ethiopians are family-focused. They are strikingly beautiful, yet resilient to deformity, especially when it is life-saving. They welcomed and embraced me as a visitor by letting me provide them care — I felt honored and privileged. As we didn’t speak a common language, I will forever remember and am humbled by their expressions of gratitude.

I look back on my sabbatical and smile thinking that my time away seemed very long.  While I once had worries about leaving my patients behind, I soon learned that my wonderfully caring patients would be the first to cheer me on in my journey, and they continue to cheer me on. I am uplifted and grateful that when I do share some of the most special moments of the trip, all my friends, patients and colleagues are so happy for me.  My trip has grounded, nourished and made me a better doctor and surgeon. Looking back, it went by so fast. I miss the enrichment that I received, and so I plan to do it again and again.


Dr. Lana Kang is an orthopedic surgeon in the Hand and Upper Extremity Service at Hospital for Special Surgery.

Topics: Orthopedics
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