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WellSpan BrightSpot: WellSpan team performs surgery in Sahara Desert hospital

Who: A team of physicians and clinicians from WellSpan recently traveled to northwestern Africa to perform surgeries at a hospital run by former WellSpan York Hospital surgery resident Dr. Amanda Beattie in Mauritania. 

The WellSpan team included: 

  • Dr. Vasudevan Tiruchelvam, WellSpan Surgical Specialists. 
  • Dr. Patricia Iroabuchi, family medicine resident, WellSpan York Hospital. 
  • Dr. Archana Patel, family medicine resident, WellSpan York Hospital. 
  • Dr. Keerthi Yarlagadda, family medicine resident, WellSpan York Hospital. 
  • Dr. Dhaval Patel, general surgery resident, WellSpan York Hospital.
  • Abu Koroma, nurse anesthetist, WellSpan Apple Hill Medical Center. 
  • Jamey Wilmoth, nurse anesthetist, WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital. 
  • Kristin Luce, registered nurse, WellSpan Apple Hill Medical Center.
  • Diana Aremo, medical assistant, WellSpan Cardiology. 

The nine WellSpan team members were joined by five other non-WellSpan clinicians. 

What: The team spent seven days working in Chinguetti, a Mauritania city in the Sahara Desert. Their journey there took almost 48 hours, including two airplane flights and a seven-hour car drive (two hours on unpaved roads). While driving around during their trip, the team sometimes had to get out of a stranded vehicle to help push it out of a sand dune. 

The group brought 35 suitcases of equipment to donate to the hospital, including laparoscopic surgical equipment, anesthesia equipment, instruments, and supplies, as well as toys and books for children. 

The trip was sponsored by the York County Medical Foundation, the charitable arm of the York County Medical Society. Dr. Tiruchelvam (also known as Dr. Tiru), the team leader on the trip, is the president of the foundation. 

Since 2012, Dr. Beattie has been working in Chinguetti to transform a clinic into a small hospital that provides medical care to people who travel for hours to receive it. During its January visit, the team equipped the hospital to do laparoscopic or minimally invasive surgery and helped to perform the first minimally invasive gallbladder surgery. The team also did surgery to repair a child's cleft palate, removed cancerous tumors from patients, repaired hernias, and did thyroid surgery, along with performing a variety of other surgeries. 

In all, they did about 25 surgeries over seven days on patients ranging in age from 4 to the mid-70s. 

In addition to setting up laparoscopic surgery equipment, the team also set up an anesthesia machine, and trained a nurse to use it, so the hospital can perform surgery under general anesthesia. Before the visit, Beattie had to use local or spinal anesthesia for surgeries. 

Four team members, including Dr. Tiru, contracted COVID-19 and had to extend their stay for five days, in quarantine, after their surgical work had ended. 

Words to live by: 

Dr. Tiru: "Mauritania is a developing country. What we achieved was big. We were able to take this facility from a shell and make it into an operating hospital equal to U.S. standards. 

"You can actually make a huge difference in people's lives on these types of trips. When you take someone's gallbladder out or fix their hernia, you are taking care of people who have no chance of getting this surgery done unless they have money. You reach out to people who are less fortunate than you. It's a life-changing experience. We take a lot for granted in the United States. The conditions there are very basic. A hot shower was a luxury. It wasn't an easy trip, but the team was amazing. Almost all of the team want to go back." 

Abu Koroma: "I have done many mission trips, prior to Mauritania. For several reasons, this trip has become the most memorable and spiritually rewarding thus far. When you are part of a team that performs multiple surgeries to restore human dignity, and witness how appreciative the people of Chinguetti were, that experience was pretty rewarding."