MISSIONARY SURGEON TAKES ON CHILDHOOD HEART DISEASE IN AFRICA
Dr. Russ White of Tenwek Hospital, Kenya, plans first African heart surgery training program outside of Egypt and South Africa
At least 1 in 500 Kenyans, most of them children, have heart valves scarred by rheumatic heart disease — a consequence of untreated strep throat. In fact, 1 in every 175 children in sub-Saharan Africa has rheumatic heart disease. The rates are even higher around Tenwek Hospital, home of this year’s L’Chaim Prize winner Dr. Russ White. Research conducted by Dr. White has found 6% of school-aged children have evidence of the condition. Seven out of ten young people with heart disease due to damaged valves will die before the age of 25 — unless surgery is available.
Dr. White and his team already perform most of the heart operations in Kenya. But Tenwek’s capacity is limited. With a growing waiting list of 450 patients — just based on word-of-mouth referral — Dr. White cannot keep up with the demand. Sadly, many will die awaiting treatment for this curable condition.
Dr. White has been in Kenya for more than 20 years. He helped start Tenwek’s many training programs, including doctor internships and general surgery training under the Pan-African Academy of Christian Surgeons. He is a pioneer in the management of esophageal cancer in Kenya, which has very high rates of the disease. He is also a faculty member at Brown University.
Dr. White’s plan is to train cardiac surgeons, nurses and other specialists, to grow the heart surgery service at Tenwek and prepare surgeons to work at other hospitals in Africa.
The L’Chaim Prize will go toward the following needs:
- Stipends and housing for trainees. Dr. White anticipates having two trainees per year in the three-year fellowship program, which has been approved by the College of Surgeons of Eastern, Central and Southern Africa. The trainees will learn how to operate on heart valves, congenital heart disease, esophageal cancer, tuberculosis and other disease of the chest.
- Equipment for the lab and ICU, such as ultrasound scanners, ventilators, and blood gas analyzers
- Training the community team to detect cases of heart disease. Early detection allows prevention of another attack of strep throat with antibiotics. If a patient already has rheumatic heart disease, then another bout of strep throat and rheumatic fever can further damage the heart valves.
These components are the first steps toward a full cardiovascular disease treatment center at Tenwek Hospital. Diseases like HIV and malaria causes 4–5 times as many deaths as rheumatic heart disease but receive 500–1000 times the funding. The L’Chaim Prize will be a much needed boost to clinical care of heart disease in Africa.
The Gerson L’Chaim Prize for Outstanding Christian Medical Missionary Service is the result of the generosity of Rabbi Erica Gerson and AMHF co-founder Mark Gerson, a New York businessman. In explaining their reasons for founding the Prize, the Gersons wrote “ all is not lost and hope exists, in part because of a group of people who are devoting their lives to the stranger, the sick, and the impoverished. These people are leaving their friends and their non-nuclear families behind for long periods, forsaking the comforts of the West, and immersing themselves in entirely new languages and cultures in order to live their love for the stranger.”
Read more about this year’s award in The New York Times. If you would like to support the work of Dr. White, you may do so here. He still requires additional funds to build housing for future trainees.