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Joy at UNTH as foreign, local doctors carry out open heart surgeries

From Chidi Nnadi, Enugu

It was a moment of glory and thanksgiving to God recently at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH), Ituku/Ozalla, Enugu State.

For one week, the patients who came for open heart surgery had cause to be happy. Their surgeries were not only successful, but were also highly subsidised courtesy of the VOOM Foundation, who came from the USA to help carry out open heart surgery in the hospital.

Thus, penultimate week was hectic for the Chief Medical Director of UNTH, Dr. Christopher Amah and some visiting doctors from the Foundation, as they worked round the clock to attend to the patients assembled for surgeries.

The surgeons were led by 56-year-old Dr. Vincent Ohaju, chief executive officer and founder of VOOM Foundation, whose father died at the age 56 years from heart-related ailment.

Moved by what happened to his late father, Dr. Ohaju decided to partner with the UNTH to help Nigerians who have heart diseases.

The visiting doctors had worked for one week at UNTH and carried out 11 heart surgical operations successfully.

In a chat with journalists who visited the UNTH to witness the surgeries, Dr. Ohaju said: “What prompted our coming to the UNTH was the desire to improve standard of healthcare in Nigeria. Obviously, we have to start somewhere and UNTH became a very important place for us because we found out that Dr Amah, the chief medical director for the facility, believes in the principles upon which VOOM Foundation was founded, so we thought we have found a willing partner and it is that partnership that has sustained us till now despite all the challenges that have come up along the way.”

He disclosed that they started the mission at the UNTH about four years ago, adding that it has not been easy as they expected.

“The challenges are very numerous, I think that for a programme like this to be successful there need to be supports, not only from the management of the UNTH, but also from the entire citizenry.

“The government should actually support an effort like this; there is no doubt in my mind that almost $1 billion leaves this country every year on medical tourism, I don’t know if the citizens are aware of this. So, whenever there is an effort to set up programmes which will keep people inside this country than travelling overseas, I think it behooves on everybody, both the government and private citizens to come together to play a role.”

Dr. Amah commended the VOOM Foundation team, saying the doctors had carried out 11 surgeries in the last one week.

He disclosed that the Foundation has been  supportive to his hospital and had given them a lot of equipment and consumables that enabled the hospital to highly subsidize the charges the patients pay.

“The patients pay N1 million to have a cardiac surgery here while elsewhere in the country, I don’t know anywhere else they do an open heart surgery for less than N3 million to N5 million; but we have been able to bring it low here because of the support of VOOM Foundation and the others.”

He also noted that this year’s VOOM mission was coming back-to-back with that of POBIC Open Heart International, an Italian group, which he said would be coming the moment the VOOM Foundation was leaving.

“The POBIC people again will do 100 per cent free surgeries because they are partnering with Roche International and the children and all the indigent persons that get operated are 100 per cent free. So, from now till the middle of December we are going to be busy operating and after that take a break for the year.

“We are expecting to carry out 30 surgeries by the time we wind up in December. But these are surgeries you must judge very well before you do. Like the one we planned to do today, it is a small baby of one year and two months, so you must optimise your pure condition to get good result because most of the cases are presented to us very late because they first of all roam the country taking drugs from chemists, and drinking herbs before they find help or agree to come here by which time the case has advanced,” he said.

On what POBIC will be doing he said: “POBIC is planning to do 10 open heart surgeries and 10 non-open heart, using cardiac characterization lab. This year we have three open heart surgeries done entirely by our own people, but because this is more expensive as it requires more resources and consumables, it makes more sense to batch them and put them in lots. The team does operations in between, maybe once in two weeks or so.

“We have five years understanding with the POBIC group which is renewable and another group coming from India, they will start next year, so we have about six groups here now. Obviously, this is the most comfortable place that you can do open heart surgery in this country, no doubt about it. And, of course, the experience and facilities are much more here.

“Since we started in 2013 we have done more surgeries than had been done in the last 36 years in this country, from 1974 when the first open heart surgery was done till 2003 when it stopped, the literature will show about 120 open heart surgeries from 1974 till 2003, but we have from 2013 we resumed till now, done over 250 cases.”

He also revealed that they have held talks with a team from Sweden, who had come to see how they could begin neurosurgery in the hospital.

Mrs. Faith Egbo whose son was operated on to correct a hole in the heart was full of thanks to Dr. Amah and the doctors from VOOM Foundation.

She said her son, Emmanuel, had suffered from congenital heart disease that gave them sleepless nights.

Another patient, Mrs Jane Anusiem, who hails from Imo State, but resides in Lagos, recalled how she had slumped on her way from her office in 2013.

The civil servant disclosed that since then she has been in and out of hospitals.

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