A few years ago I wrote a book, probably better called a booklet, for my students as they began their clinical surgical courses in fourth year of a six year course. It was relevant to their situation with lack of facilities and language difficulties. Their ability to read thick tomes was limited, so I tried to put the very relevant stuff in a compressed form. As I meet a new era of Western students sold on investigations, sometimes seemingly before physical examinations, I’m convinced that it may be of use to them also.
It is due to be published as an ibook on November the 27th.
I am pleased to commend this practical surgery help book written by Associate Professor Barry Hicks.
Dr Hicks is a surgeon with vast surgical experience in both Australia and Ethiopia, having taught, conducted clinical work, and operated in a number of hospitals throughout Ethiopia over a 50-year period. Dr Hicks has included photos from his extensive collection accumulated over his years in Ethiopia and this is therefore unique as it included many photos of advanced pathology seen in rural Africa. While this is a small book written initially with Arba Minch medical students in mind, it is packed full of practical surgical tips for students and doctors alike and it may be of help to many in training.
The format is that of a very personal but practical description of what information is common and important, as well as other lists and facts covering many areas of surgery. It takes a systematic approach to the human body and surgical conditions. It is small enough to sit in a medical student’s or doctor’s pocket or be loaded on to a phone so that it can act as a ready reference for both elective clinical ward work and the emergency situation. It should be read, memorised, and kept handy for refreshing knowledge as needed.
As a surgeon working in the DR Congo, who has regarded Barry Hicks as a mentor for many years, I commend this booklet to you.
Dr Neil Wetzig AO; FRACS; FRCS (Eng.); FCS(ECSA)
Consultant and Advisor of Surgical Training Programs, HEAL Africa Hospital, Goma, DR Congo
I’m not sure that I was ever really fit to be registered as a medical practitioner. In our junior resident’s year we were supposed to be placed under a variety of different specialties. As I remember I was only in three departments. Initially I did a surgical and a medical term each of three months (this was a basic requirement). Then I did a one months spell in the anaesthetic department which became a six months term. After one month I was made a temporary, maybe unofficial, and I’m sure in these days what would be illegal, acting anaesthetic registrar. This was very good for my future overseas time where, as a surgeon, I usually didn’t have an anaesthetist to work with me. The head of the department was either very lazy or very keen to see me get experience. Even on his private lists he would come and see the patient until they were asleep and then I would do the rest until he saw the awakening patient in recovery. I did the night on call duties alone and thus got experience with a great variety of emergency situations, which served me well in my later experience. I used to be amused when my first year contemporaries would ask the anaesthetic department for help in doing things, and then found me there as the one sent to fix the situation. Seriously thank God nothing went wrong.
At the end of that year I was invited to be an anaesthetic trainee, but declined. In my second year out I was in general practice and gave quite a few anaesthetics, both for other GP’s and for a few of the surgeons who were in the area. Fully trained anaesthetists were in short supply in those times even in the major cities.
In the intervening years after that, as I trained as a surgeon, until I arrived in Ethiopia in the late 60’s I didn’t have to think about the head end of the bed!
Until about 2009, when I started working in University hospitals in Ethiopia, I rarely worked with a properly trained anaesthetic doctor. Thus I had to work out a system of how to manage two responsibilities at once.
Where I was initially we had to be careful how much oxygen we used as it was all cylinder oxygen which had to be brought from the capital 250 km away, and our budget was tight. Ether and ethyl chloride were cheap and plentiful. Succylmethoneum (scolinej, as a dried powder, was also plentiful. We had flaxedil and curare as longer term relaxants and an EMO machine for using a measured percentage of continuously supplied ether. Ether, as well as having hypnotic and analgesic properties, is a muscle relaxant. Ketamine was just being developed around then. We had a small stock of Pentothal.
Thus I developed a few principal concepts; –
Use Local anaesthetic if you safely can. LAs are very useful for spirals, cordals, blocks or by infiltration. They were specially useful in Leprosy patients with depressed sensation in many areas.
I have done Caesarean sections under LA. The pain problem comes when placing the hand into the pelvis to get the head freed. Apart from the discomfort of that, by using a larger volume of dilute LA, it is possible.
After a while, for Caesarean Sections, I usually chose this other way. Having everything carefully set up with nurse having prepared the site for surgery and having draped the patient while I was pre-oxygenating her, I put the lady to sleep using Pentothal and scoline to intubate, then I hooked up the EMO Machine on 0% ether. I then rushed out had alcohol poured over my hands, dressed rapidly without scrubbing and began to operate. The reason to do things this way was so that no respiratory depressant nor paralysing drugs crossed the placenta to the baby. Time from the pouring of alcohol on my hands, until the baby was out was about 6-7 minutes. After that ether was added in the EMO machine for the remainder of the operation.
Ether in the lungs rarely makes people vomit. Ether in the stomach is nauseating.
In later years ketamine was very useful. Ketamine was being developed about that time. Its nasty nightmarish effects didn’t seem to worry small patients but in adults it needed to be covered by something like Valium.
Later ECG machines, pulse oximeters, automatic blood pressure machines helped me a lot, as after stabilising the patient and becoming the surgeon the anaesthetic end was monitored but by an untrained person. Well I trained them somewhat, and later one of them gave me an anaesthetic.
As I remember Maurice King, in a book about Anaesthesia in Developing Countries, wrote that a piece of string is an important part of anaesthetic equipment. Its purpose is to tie the anaesthetist to the machine to stop him wandering away. In one of my stints overseas we had a young Eastern European trained anaesthetic nurse attached to the hospital. I came into the operating room one day to find him looking out the window. His patient was dead and he was oblivious to the fact. We managed to resuscitate the patient. I had several other terrifying experiences with him, so reverted to doing my own anaesthetics and letting him watch. He didn’t want to listen to me. He was understandably offended but I have no regrets for doing so.
In my later years there were almost always either nurse anaesthetists or doctor anaesthesiologists. In that period, I had two interesting experiences, one very sad, and one to me amusing.
A nurse anaesthetist was intubating a patient while I was scrubbed waiting to start operating. It was obvious that the tube was in his oesophagus. The nurse absolutely refused to listen to me. I called the Ethiopian Head of the Surgical department in the next operating room. The nurse also refused to listen to him. I did not have a position with authority in that hospital, so was unable to insist and just take over the anaesthetic. The patient died.
The second occurred just as I was retiring. The head of anaesthetics came to me with a hernia which I agreed to repair for him. In the next breath he said to me please give my anaesthetic yourself, I don’t trust any of them!” I did it for him under local anaesthetic!
Working in Africa you were in competition with other forms of ‘medical practice’. There were witch doctors who sometimes caused us great difficulties. One case that I remember very clearly was a pregnant woman at term who presented in severe shock and bleeding heavily from a placenta praevia. After urgent resuscitation with IV saline as we waited for blood for transfusion her haemoglobin when checked was 3Gm/100mls, about 25% of normal. I have no idea of what her haemoglobin was before she started to bleed but suspect that it was low or she would have been dead. We were very short of blood and there was no blood bank in the area and, using the 2 units available, I quickly did a Caesarean. (She was nowhere nearly fully dilated.) The baby was dead. She survived.
As a first choice she had gone to the witch doctor who sacrificed a goat which she provided. He got the meat, she had to drink the blood to appease the evil spirit causing the problem! It hadn’t helped.
Then there were local healers. I have no doubt that they often did good. A high infant and maternal mortality in the country is a warning that a better system is necessary. But where I mostly met with their failure was in their treatment of fractures. Their major approach was to use external fixation with strips of bamboo tied together very tightly with string. They didn’t have Xrays; they didn’t understand the practice of fixing the joints above and below; they didn’t know how to assess the potential excessive tightness of their fixation with possible nerve, vascular and necrotic problems. They surprisingly didn’t seem to have learned that fractures swell in the early stage of the healing process. We have been ingrained with the 5P principle, watch for – Pain, Pallor, Pulses, Paraesthesia, Paralysis. They do not understand this. They didn’t understand early mobilisation. Therefore we faced initially necrosis with gangrene +/- infection. Then stumps where the limb had dropped off, contracted joints, extreme sepsis etc.
Amputations performed, because of infections, usually had to be of the guillotine type with refashioning when the situation was better controlled. Occasionally on examination of the amputated dead limb we could not find evidence of a fracture. I will show you a few as they presented. Some of the pictures are a bit nasty. It was rare not to have one or more in the ward every week.
I have seen a ‘spontaneous’ colostomy in a strangulated hernia which presented after days of pain. But even more unusual, shortly after that I had 3 cases of lumbar colostomies in children. One was in a boy who fell onto a sharp stick which went into his right lumbar area. Faeces began to discharge immediately but he lived hours away in an area without roads and his parents were very poor. He lived and after 3 months they had enough money to travel to our hospital. By that time he had developed a huge ulcer as seen in the photo below.
Some 25 years ago I wrote an article for presentation at the Ethiopian Medical Association meeting in Addis Ababa. I presented 300 cases of which the average weight was 500Gm. The incidence reported by the pathologist of cancer was 15%. The majority of malignant areas were very small and nothing further was done for those cases. In the following 25 years I saw many more.
After I had recovered from the illness which brought me home from my first stint in Ethiopia, I became the on staff surgeon of a large (602 bed) Queensland country hospital. The previous surgeon had become the full time Medical Director. As I took over he requested that I allow him to manage the patients admitted with burns. I was only too happy to agree. I can hardly remember a single time in my stints in Ethiopia when we didn’t have at least one burns patient and usually more in the wards.
Burns are common in Ethiopia for the following reasons.
There are open unguarded fires in the middle of many huts.
Mothers often have to walk considerable distances to get wood or water. They go when the baby or infant is asleep and the children either roll or fall into the fire.
Most epilepsy is untreated and in an attack they may fall into a fire.
Mud houses, built around old timber, burn in a flash if they catch alight.
Electricity is frequently poorly installed.
BELOW THE LINE ARE PHOTOS OF BURNS – SOME ARE GRAPHIC
Over the years the available investigations for head injuries has increased markedly . In 1962 my very first term as an intern placed me in both a general and a neurosurgical surgical roster. Sitting in bed 6 in bay 1 of the third floor general and neurosurgical ward was a young man who had broken his neck playing Australian Rules Football in High School. It had gone both unnoticed and untreated until he had begun to be paralysed. Before I came on the ward he had been operated on and the tracture fixed, but he was still unable to reach the tasty food which his family brought for him. I especially remember the grapes. I made a deal with him that every time I went past I’d give him some, provided that I got a share. We remained good friends until he died many years later. I assisted in some neurosurgical procedures at that time but never got to do one.