Motivated by her strong desire to share her knowledge and skills, colorectal surgeon Gemma Conn travelled to Southern Africa to help teach vital medical procedures. On 23 April, she ran this year’s London Marathon to raise money for Out to Africa, a charity project that is helping to provide better medical care for those in desperate need in Zambia.
“It was very eye-opening there; the things that we take for granted here in the UK – very basic health care – is just not available there,” says Gemma. “People die from simple injuries such as burns not being changed properly… leading to infections. The Out to Africa project is about education and training to make things better.”
The Out to Africa project is the brainchild of Tom Browne; a vascular surgeon who saw the potential for improving health practices in Zambia through greater access to training and information. The project identifies areas of need within the University Teaching Hospital (UTH) in Lusaka (Zambia’s capital city) and then links those departments with experts in the UK, based at Mid Essex Hospital Services NHS Trust, to arrange education programs. It is a multidisciplinary project, which involves doctors, nurses, and physiotherapists, as well as other support staff. Many of the teachings are simple interventions that have a huge impact on a patient’s quality of life, such as burn treatment and pain relief.
“In Zambia there are a lot of burns, it’s one of the big problems they have. A lot of people cook their meals on open fires in their houses. Some people are living in huts so campfires are very common. There’s also a lot of untreated epilepsy so people have fits and fall into the fires. Another problem is that and a lot of the children’s clothing is made from highly flammable materials so there are lots of accidents. Unfortunately the burn treatment is terrible. We found many of the children receiving dressings for burns weren’t being given any pain relief at all. You can imagine how awful that is to watch. A child having a dressing for a serious burn, without any pain relief. It would never happen here. But we found a lot of the carers there were afraid to give morphine because they were scared it would stop patients from breathing.”
Thanks to the training programs of the Out to Africa project these practices are changing. Gemma spent eight months last year working in Lusaka, teaching new surgical procedures at the UTH. Her time there was challenging, but she remembers it very fondly.
“It was brilliant. I was hugely impressed by the dedication and enthusiasm of the surgical trainees. You really feel you’ve made a difference. It’s extremely satisfying and also fascinating. When you don’t have the equipment you need and you have to think on your feet you learn a lot. Quite often, when I was operating at night, the lights would go out, so you’d be trying to operate in the dark, with a head torch. Nothing really fazes you after getting through those experiences.”
While working in Zambia, Gemma found running to be invaluable in helping her to cope with the pressures of working in such a stressful – and emotionally involved – role. “It is, at times, a really high-pressure job, you see horrible things, you have complications, you have to break bad news. We all need a way of unwinding,” she says. During her time in Zambia, this meant running along the red-earth road between her home and the hospital compound. The locals thought she was crazy but, for Gemma, going for a run was the perfect way to unwind. She said:
“It caused much hilarity over there. Nobody there would run anywhere if they didn’t have to. They’re all working very hard, so they don’t need to do any other exercise. The concept was very much, ‘Why are you running – are you being chased by a lion?’ They all thought I was nuts!”
Running has not, however, always come so easy to Gemma. “I was hopeless at running in school, I just generally hated it. It was only when I was about 30 and I’d put on a little weight and decided I needed to do something about it that I started running. I picked a route and ran/walked it until, one day, I could run all the way, then, a year later, I did the London Marathon for the first time. And that’s when I realised I can run! I may not be fast, but I can do it!’
After going through a period of inconsistency with her running, Gemma was thrilled to be asked to run for Out to Africa in the London Marathon. “Running regularly again has made a huge difference to how I feel about myself. Now that I’m back into it, I feel amazing. I feel calmer, less anxious – it’s great therapy to go out and forget about the world and just run.”
Though she ran a little slower than she would have liked, Gemma enjoyed the marathon just as much as her training. “The marathon was brilliant. A hip niggle I had in training played up so I slowed down and soaked up the atmosphere. The support from the crowd was phenomenal. It was really emotional, so many people running for amazing reasons.”
Despite the niggles, Gemma managed all 26.2 miles and made her charity proud. “Out to Africa is a project very close to my heart. I truly believe this project can help improve the lives of people who are suffering from lack of basic medical care.”
To find out more about Out to Africa, visit www.meht.nhs.uk/ out-to-africa
If you would like to make a donation you can do so through Gemma’s just giving page: www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Gemma-Conn