Doctor helps restore hope, health in Africa

By Sara Bruestle | Mar 20, 2013
Courtesy of: Pat Rees Dr. Pat Rees of Mukilteo teaches medical students in the operating room of the Kibuye Hope Hospital in Burundi, Africa during a recent trip.

A Mukilteo doctor has been busy volunteering at a medical school and hospital in Africa to help restore hope in its people.

Dr. Pat Rees is back from her third trip to Hope Africa University, where she volunteers as a surgeon at Kibuye Hope Hospital and as a teacher at the Frank Ogden School of Medicine.

“Hope Africa University is the hope of Africa in my mind,” she said. “We need to give them the very best education that we can there.”

Rees was invited to volunteer at the medical school and its hospital by missionary surgeon Dr. Frank Ogden, himself an Everett resident.

After 25 years in Burundi, he retired as medical director of the university in 2010. He knew Hope Africa University would need a surgeon, and asked Rees to help fill in.

Rees has volunteered three times in the last two years at the university. Most recently, Rees was there for six weeks. She returned to Mukilteo on Feb. 25.

“I love the hospital work, but it was the medical students that hooked me in,” she said. “They want so much to learn medicine and so much to be good physicians. They also have a passion for helping their own country.

“I want to go back. My heart is in Africa.”

Although it is about the size of Massachusetts, Burundi has the second highest population density in Africa with a population of 8.6 million. Nearly 70 percent of the people live in poverty.

Hospitals and doctors are in great need: There are 0.03 physicians and 0.73 hospital beds per 1,000 Burundians.

Many will wait until it’s almost too late to go to the hospital for medical or surgical help because they don’t have the financial means to pay for it. There is no medical insurance in Africa.

The most common – and challenging – surgical cases Rees sees are hernias, extensive burns, infected wounds or bones, and cancerous tumors that require far more amputations than she ever thought she would do.

“Oftentimes, the parents won’t bring [their children] in because they know what [is wrong], and they know what they would have to have done, and they don’t have the money for it,” she said.

Hope Hospital has six Burundian doctors and some clinical staff, but is very dependent upon American doctors and specialists. They also rely on American funds and supplies, but Rees said it isn’t enough.

“There are multiples of us who have volunteered intermittently over the last years,” she said. “We pay our way over there, we pay our room and board. You pay to work there.”

Medical supplies at the hospital are also very limited: The hospital frequently runs out of supplies because it doesn’t have needed funds. Doctors and staff are forced to either get inventive or go without.

Rees, a retired doctor, was a general surgeon for the Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett for about 20 years.

She said she volunteers at Hope Africa University because it is just that – the hope of Africa. She said there is nothing more rewarding than teaching the next generation of African doctors. During this last trip, she taught a class of 36.

“I’m convinced that Africa is not going to be helped by America,” she said. “If it were going to, the millions and billions of dollars that NGOs have flooded into Africa for the last 40 years would have done it – but it hasn’t.

“Africa needs to lift from the inside, and these students, I think, can do it. They’re smart, they’ve got spirit, and they have a passion to help their own people.”

She said one of her students, named Eddie, put it perfectly about the kind of students who attend Hope Africa University.

He said: “We are different than our parents. Our parents wanted to get education for themselves, so that they could lift themselves up out of poverty. We want to get an education to help our other Burundians. We want to lift them out.”

Rees, 57, has no official plans to go back to Burundi, but she hopes to see her students again soon. When she left, she left the hospital without a surgeon.

“She’s a very good teacher and works well with her staff,” Ogden said. “She’s a really good asset. I’m hoping she will go again.”

Hope Africa University was founded in 2000 by the Free Methodist Church as a university in Kenya and moved to Burundi in 2004. The Van Norman Clinic opened in Burundi in 2012.

The university opened with fewer than 200 students. Today, it has more than 4,000 students from eight African countries and Haiti studying medicine, theology, psychology, technology, civil engineering and more.

Student tuition at the Frank Ogden School of Medicine is $1,500 a year for the first four years, then $3,500 per year for three clinical years. As most students come from poverty, some of them have had to stop school during clinical years due to lack of funds.

The Friends of Hope Africa University is the key supporter of the university and has donated more than $4 million since 2000. The funds go to construction, scholarships, medical aid and other needs.

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