Dr György Szeifert, chief of neurosurgery, spent a month in Nigeria as a volunteer. He gave an interview to borsonline.hu about his time in Africa.
One of my colleagues, dr. András Csókay found out from an archbishop just how bad conditions are there. There is a Mission Hospital in Onitsha that gets financial support from the Catholic Church. They have internal medicine, surgery and paediatrics but no neurosurgery. At first this caused huge excitement among many doctors, but in the end, it was only the two of us who went there.
Were the conditions really that bad?
They practice very rudimentary medicine. It is almost impossible to imagine for a European. The only machines the hospital has are the ones that I brought in my luggage. Many doctors do not want to work in these conditions, but I said, that if we do not try something, then all of these patients will die. Click here to read about other Hungarian volunteers in Africa.
What was the biggest problem?
The extreme poverty. Only ten percent of the population has medical insurance. If they cannot pay for a surgery for example, then we cannot perform it. This happens in both state hospitals and private hospitals. But the people are very religious, their faith is enormous, and I think that is what is keeping them alive. Their living conditions are really bad, especially from a European’s point of view, but even so, I have never seen beggars or thieves. Everyone works on the farms, tries to do something productive.
Tell us about how they welcomed you
I got a very warm welcome when I arrived. The hospital director personally came to the airport. All this goodwill, trust, love and encouragement we received warms my heart. On my second day, they greeted me on the streets, children were following me.
What were the living and working conditions?
Our living quarters and the food were good. They were responsible for our room and board, and a pharmaceutical company paid the airfare. They paid for our work with love. The hospital is poor with limited resources. I performed 18 operations, on children and adults, spine and brain surgeries. They still have a lot of children with hydrocephalus. This condition is very rare in Europe for example, because we screen for it and it can be repaired surgically. Of course, they did not have the means to do it.
I operated on two children who head brain tumors. The parents could pay for the CT, they diagnosed them, but they had no money to pay for the operation. These were the types of operations we were doing when we had the chance. Fortunately we were able to help many people.
I am guessing you did not have much free time.
No, I did not. I woke up at 5am and worked until the late evenings. But on weekends they always took me somewhere. I have seen churches, where thousands of people crowded in. It was astonishing. In one of these churches, even Pope Jean-Paul II said a Mass once. It is important to experience this way of life when you are not working for financial gain, but because it makes you glad that you can help those in need. The biggest gift for me was when I operated on a nine-year-old little girl. She could not speak for a year because of her brain tumour. On the day after the operation, she was happily calling for her mom. She said that she wants to be a doctor when she grows up.
Could you say some encouraging words to your colleagues?
This work means a lot for those living there. Many cannot pay for medical care and are left without any help.
Plus we should leave these European standards at home. Like Albert Schweitzer who left his career and went to Africa to help. He started working from a chicken coop. Today he has an ultra-modern hospital with hundreds of beds. We do not even know how lucky we are here. It is unimaginable here not to operate on a child with a known tumour. But I have seen it happen in Africa. And they can still be happy, they still smile and laugh. I am hoping that other doctors will volunteer too. I think that Hungarians are especially suited for this work. It is in our blood. We can fight even when it is really hard: “If the patient is already here, I am not going to let him die in my arms.”
Featured image: honlap.parokia.hu