An Australian surgeon accompanied by his wife, has spent the best part of the last thirteen years treating patients in the African nation of Democratic Republic of Congo.
In a discussion with Neil Johnson on 20Twenty Dr Neil Wetzig gave an insight into his experiences as a surgeon working in a war-torn nation that continues to remain dangerously unstable.
The first thing Neil Johnson wanted to know was how Dr Wetzig’s passport managed to get covered in bloodstains.
“I was operating in the middle of some instability (at the HEAL Africa hospital in Goma) – rebel attacks on Congolese and vice versa, and I operated on a Congolese soldier and had my passport in my top pocket,” he explained.
“In the process of some surgery I realized the blood had soaked through, and when I took out my passport, there it was.”
“I felt that was a sealing of my relationship with Congo in a strange sort of way, and thankfully the patient did well and we were able to save his life,” Dr Wetzig surmised.
But there’s no skirting around the fact that Congo is a volatile and dangerous place and 2016 is no exception. Dr Wetzig said the country is having an election which tends to escalate the level of strife and tension in the nation.
“It’s expected there could be some degree of civil unrest around election time. But sadly it looks as though the elections will not go ahead so we’re expecting trouble. In the past we’ve had to deal with rebel activity and general fighting among various rebel groups and the Congolese army.”
Dr Wetzig said the problem with Congo is that it’s very wealthy because of its minerals and everybody wants to get their hands on them. So the degree of instability created often allows other people to come in and take those minerals out.
“But there’s also tribal issues and a range of other things that lead to that, but essentially it’s been unstable since a fairly dictatorial president was overthrown back in 2001,” said Dr Wetzig quoting some Congo history.
The question is how safe is the hospital where Dr Wetzig works and what about the safety factor for he and his wife Gwen?
“I feel safer in the hospital,” said the doctor, “The beauty of the HEAL Africa Hospital is that it’s a Christian hospital and it has open doors to all sorts of people.”
“We have had a situation where in one ward we’ve had not only Congolese army but also rebel soldiers who only 24 hours ago might have been fighting each other and now they’re in hospital together.”
Dr Wetzig said the hospital displays a kingdom principle of opening the doors to anyone who comes in to be treated. That’s one of the beauties he likes about working there.
“But having said that, it creates some tensions in its own right. And we’ve just got to keep our wits about us. We feel safe within the hospital boundaries,” Dr Wetzig explained.
Dr Wetzig and his wife Gwen work in the city of Goma which is in the north-eastern part of the DRC, just over the border from Rwanda.
He said this particular area has been significantly influenced by the Rwandan genocide in 1994 when many people fled across the border.
“That’s part of the reason for the instability in that particular city which is now around a million people,” he said.
Congo borders the Central African Republic in the north, South Sudan also has a border with Congo, along with Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi, that are all close to the city of Goma. And not forgetting Tanzania, Zambia, Angola and Gabon, so that’s a total of nine countries all up bordering Congo.
He said it was about the people and that its one of the poorest parts of the world before reporting a UN statistic to support that.
“The UN rates countries by what’s called a human development index. That takes into account health, living standards and education. DR Congo was ranked 187 out of 187 countries.”
“But it’s gone up a bit. Purely because Ebola has hit places like Liberia and Sierra Leone, so they’ve dropped down,” Dr Wetzig said.
But here’s the thing for Neil and his wife Gwen. It’s the people.
“The people are absolutely beautiful people and they’re very keen to learn, but the problem is they don’t know what they don’t know because they haven’t been able to leave the country.”
“Our heart has been called and we’ve been invited to be there, so that’s another key factor. And the thing that gets to my heart, and this has happened over a ten year period. Patients had been poorly managed and I could see that there was something we could do and build into over the longer term.”
20Twenty host Neil Johnson said he’s seen photos of the hospital inundated with water, and covering the operating theatre’s floor.
“ Yes, sadly that occurred on April the first of all days,” said Dr Wetzig, “It was probably the largest rain event that we had experienced since going there. Essentially the hospital was flooded.”
Dr Wetzig said if you saw the hospital you’d notice it’s on a hill and you would think it could never be flooded.
“The problem with Congo there’s little infrastructure. There were drains, but the drains were blocked. And these are not hospital drains, these are outside in the town,” explained the doctor.
The flooding put the operating theatre out of action and Dr Wetzig thought the hospital would be shut down for weeks. There were staff in tears because they couldn’t work. But it was then that Neil had an idea. He decided to go to the UN which had a large peace-keeping mission there.
“We went to the UN headquarters in Goma and persuaded them to check out the damage at the hospital. And that encouraged the staff to start the cleanup and within 24 hours they’d cleaned out all the mud and the operating theatres were working again within 4 to 5 days which was pretty amazing,” Dr Wetzig recalled.
He says they’ve been working at putting together systems to run the hospital more efficiently for over ten years and the flooding incident resulted in another one.
“For them waking up in the morning is a blessing,” said Dr Wetzig who had one local tell him that she’s just grateful to wake up alive in the morning.
“I’m an optimist and as peace comes to that region, people will be able to think ahead and that’s what we’re doing there, working alongside them to try and help build up some systems particularly in the medical area.”
“We estimate that about 600 thousand dollars worth of medical equipment was destroyed in the flood.”
“But through the generosity of people, including the Mater Hospital in Brisbane, Queensland X-ray were able to source an ultra-sound machine, but we still need to order more equipment,” Dr Wetzig said.
The medical equipment they’re using in Congo is usually sourced from Australia. Although it’s second-hand it’s in good working and usually becomes available because it’s been superseded by a new model.
As far as the surgical work itself is concerned Dr Wetzig said one of the biggest challenges is a reliable source of power to the operating theatres.
“The power is incredibly inefficient. We’ve been able to supply a generator to the hospital but even that’s hard to work with.”
“I think the record is about five power outages during one operation,” said Dr Wetzig before adding that he depends on a battery operated headlight.
“I can charge that up when we do have power and use it afterwards.”
But whatever the challenge the Wetzigs face in their calling to the African Congo is the heart of God and the gift he’s given them.
“If I have gifts that God has given me in the case of surgery, and if I can train them (Congo medical staff) to do the surgery better, to deliver a baby safely, to do a Caesarian section safely, to take an appendix out safely, with one operation, then I think that’s making a big difference to not only the patient but also to the country,” Dr Wetzig said, speaking from his heart.
They’ve started a surgical training program the first of its kind in Congo beginning with five doctors.
“So that’s where my heart is. It’s seeing the patients particularly those who are children who’ve been mismanaged medically, recover.
Dr Neil Wetzig is a Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and of the Royal College of Surgeons England.
He is a former Chairman of the breast surgery and endocrine surgery sections for the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.
Neil is also a Member of the Australian Medical Association and the Clinical Oncological Society of Australia.