by: Kathleen A. Hogan, MD
I am part of a group of female orthopedic surgeons (WOGO) who travel to third world countries to improve the lives of people by improving mobility through joint replacement. In July, we traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as guests of the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation to perform knee replacement surgeries. This was an incredibly challenging trip and rewarding trip.
Exhausted, Elated and Disappointed
In four days of surgery, we replaced 42 knees. The last few days in DRC were bittersweet. We were exhausted from operating late almost every night. We were elated to have accomplished so much, but disappointed we did not get all the surgeries done. But time had run out. Another visiting surgeon had come to operate and we also didn’t want to leave the country the day after patients had just had surgery.
Visits to An Orphanage and Maternity Hospital
We had 2 days left. We packed cargo. We spent time with our patients. We traveled to an orphanage on the outskirts of Kinsasha. WOGO partners with Soles-4-Souls, a non profit organization which delivers shoes to people in third world countries. We visited with the children in the orphanage, and sat in the dirt to fit them with shoes. It was organized chaos with lots of smiling happy children. We also visited a maternity hospital. Many of us packed extra luggage full of baby onesies and blankets, and every new mother there went home went home with a care package of new baby clothes.
Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary
We did do a few “fun” activities while we were there. We spent an afternoon visiting the Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary. Bonobos are members of the great ape family – as closely related to humans as are chimpanzees. Unlike chimps, they do not fight each other for food or dominance And the female bonobos are in charge. Bonobos live only in the Congo and are endangered. Their habitat has been devastated by civil war and monkeys are sold as gifts and eaten as food. This sanctuary was founded by a Congolese women who has dedicated her life to raising and protecting orphan bonobos.
We also saw the Congolese Symphony perform. Yes, in the midst of this poverty there is a symphony. It is the only symphony in Central Africa. Many of the musicians taught themselves to play on homemade instruments. They are unpaid and have other jobs during the day We saw them perform in an old school gymnasium and they were amazing.
Kind, Friendly People Enduring Terrible Tragedy
If you read the stories of civil wars and child soldiers, and rape and corruption, you know that the people here have endured terrible tragedies. The poverty is unbelievable. Garbage litters city streets. Police officers and civil servants go without pay. Presidential elections are cancelled. Doctors work more than one job to pay the bills. I saw men with machine guns sitting on top of trucks. Yet the people we met were kind, friendly, and wonderful. They dress with a keen sense of fashion and color. People were genuinely happy we were there. The team of nurses and doctors at the hospital stayed late to help us out and often slept there. The police officers with machine guns who traveled with us cared about our safety and became part of our team too, even joining us in giving out shoes at the orphanage.
Our Last Day – Looking Forward to Returning to the Congolese People
The last day at the hospital, we brought all the patients outside to take a group photo. All of the patients started clapping their hands and singing “God is so Good.” I cried. I think everyone did. It was an emotional, exhausting, amazing trip. The DRC is so much more than a failed state. I understand now why Dikembe Mutombo is so dedicated to helping the people from his homeland. His hospital does so many great things – vaccinations, cervical cancer screening, hearing aid distribution, cataract surgery, and now joint replacements. WOGO hopes to raise enough money to go back to DRC next year and continue helping the wonderful Congolese people. Learn more about our trip at Women Orthopaedist Global Outreach and the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation.