I was a general surgeon. This is a medical show so don’t go below the line if you’re squeamish.
I decided today that, as I’m about a month ahead in the daily devotional articles As I read it (plainly understanding the Bible) that I produce, it is time to do a medical article. So I decided to open my photo gallery and just write about a picture. I love kids so I’ll go to the paediatric section and I’ll choose a not very gory picture and see what memories it brings back. Gory is a relative word and so I’ll put the picture at the end, so that unless you choose to see it and press the ‘more’ line you can just consider what I write. And I guess that I am using this example to show you the number of issues that lie behind almost all patients whom you see as a practicing surgeon.
In the Ethiopian Orthodox church circumcision is practiced according to the law as laid down in the Old Testament for the Jews. They go further in that they do it for both boys and girls. Usually it is performed by a neighbour who may have experience but is not qualified. The Muslim population do it in on much older boys and in some of the animistic areas they even delay until they are of marriageable age.
I refused to be involved in female circumcision as a prime agent but sometimes was drawn in later on. I remember a family bringing their twins a boy and a girl. They were maybe 4 0r 5 years old. I made a booking to operate on the son but after explaining why I thought girls should not be operated upon, I refused to do the daughter. The boy’s procedure went well. That evening I was called back to the hospital urgently. A neighbour had ‘operated’ on the daughter. She was brought in shock and still bleeding. Question – should I have been involved primarily? She survived and I hope that the community learnt a lesson. Note please almost all girls are circumcised and this sort of complication is rare.
Most have learned not to perform the procedure if there is some anatomical abnormality, which occurs with a 1/1500 live births. The prepuce is frequently used in repair of an abnormal situation. Fortunately the young teenager I am about to describe had not been circumcised. This boy had 2 problems a) he had hypospadias and was urinating from a hole about half way along the shaft of his penis, and b) he had a moderate chordee – that means that when erect his penis was curved, in his case downwards and through about 45 degrees. As a little boy this created few if any problems but when he urinated standing up he had to be careful not to urinate onto his own legs or clothes. Obviously it later would cause problems with intercourse. So he needed surgery, which in a well doctored country would be done by a paediatric urologist. At the time there was such a specialist in the capital. As about 90% of people are rural and in the capital there are about 8 million people at any rate, it is not possible to refer every case! When I operated on my first such case I had never even seen a case like this operated upon. Most people consider that area of their body ‘private’, but are still very conscious of it!
Over the years I have seen a number of diaphragm injuries. Four come to mind as very interestingly different.
- While I was doing a lot of chest surgery, I received an urgent call to come to the OR, where a an obstetrician friend was doing a Caesarian Section. The patient had been in a car accident a couple of years before, and had gone through pregnancy well until when on the operating table, having been given a dose of scoline her left chest became dull and the anaesthetist had to struggle to keep her oxygenated. She had a rapid LSCS making it much easier for the anaesthetist. You could hear bowel sounds in the chest, so with her accident story, we diagnosed delayed rupture of the diaphragm, probably by the rupture of her incomplete tear with the twitches caused by the scoline. She was repositioned and her diaphragm repaired. She and her baby did well.
- A man had been caught between a backing utility and a bench several years before. He was referred to me with a large AAA and a ruptured diaphragm. At the time he had been investigated and no problems found. After work up, and postulating that his prior accident had probably damaged his aortic wall allowing his aneurysm to develop, and that its size had caused an incompletely ruptured diaphragm to completely tear, he was operated on. We repaired both problems at the same time. Obviously this time the diaphragm was repaired from below.
- A grossly obese woman unwisely sat on a glass table. She had a stab wound in her right back, and was operated on by a general surgeon who at laparotomy found a little blood but no other problem and closed the abdomen. She survived but was not well. They did a chest X-ray and found a mass in her right lower chest. I was asked to see her and after investigation explored her right chest finding a complete cut across her diaphragm with the liver totally in the chest. With it repaired she made a rapid recovery.
- The fourth case was seen when one day I made one of my weekly trips to Nazret Hospital when living in Addis Ababa. There was a man who had been stabbed in the back of his right chest. There was an UWSD in place to treat the pneumothorax. He had no abdominal signs or symptoms. But no one had noticed that there was bile coming out the drain! I explored his chest and found about a 5cm laceration in his diaphragm and a considerable laceration into the bare area on the top of his liver. I repaired both liver and diaphragm through the chest. He did well.
Being a surgeon is interesting!
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 wish that I had had better investigative equipment. I wish that I had had more energy and time to write things up on the spot. As we all know you cannot relive the past. So in my old age I dwell among memories. Some of them very special memories. And that includes this little girl.
She presented short of breath with a high fever, a very tender neck and looking into her mouth you could see a big retropharyngeal bulge, which meant we knew why she had her temperature and was having difficulty in breathing but that bulge was abnormal in a kid of that age in my experience. The X-Ray quality was terrible. We did not have CT scanning or even a decent viewing box in the wards. The following picture shows how we looked at films.
We tried for a soft tissue lateral film and a lateral bone film.
Please don’t be too critical of the films! In the upper soft tissue film you can see how far the air tube is away from the cervical spine. In the lower bony film you can see two bodies which look abnormal.
Where we were, you did something or let nature take its course! Your decision may have been very different from mine but we
- Decided that it probably wasn’t TB and started her on high dose antibiotic.
- With oxygenation and gentle sedation I did a tracheostomy under local anaesthetic.
- We aspirated a huge amount of pus through a large needle through the mouth when she was fully anaesthetized with the trachy in place. This was sent for mcs but had to go to a private lab outside the hospital.
- Made a POP encircling her forehead, strengthened a strip down the back of her neck and encircled the chest.
It was not TB but sensitive to our antibiotics. She was on this treatment for 6 weeks, except that her trachy was removed after several weeks when her temperature was down, and by testing she could breath around the tube comfortably.
Either inspite of us or because of us – she got better and went home after about 10 weeks. She wasn’t always happy to have a photograph taken!
Quite an ‘airy experience.
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.