In March 2023, Edward Sunthani, from Traditional Authority Kaphuka in Dedza District arrived at Nkhoma Mission Hospital in Lilongwe District in despair.
His parents clung to the faint hope of saving his life.
The 21-year-old battled excruciating stomach pains, a swollen abdomen and a fruitless quest for medical aid.
At Nkhoma, he was placed under the care of Dr Beth Stuebing, a volunteer doctor from the US-based Pan-African Academy of Christian Surgeons (Paacs) resident programme.
The doctor swiftly prescribed a surgery to drain Sunthani’s pancreatic fluids.
The surgeon operated on him on March 16 last year.
“He had been misdiagnosed by many others who said he was going to die. We diagnosed his condition correctly and performed the operation and witnessed his remarkable recovery,” says Dr Stuebing.
Stuebing conducts a surgery with Dr Vitu Mwafulirwa and Dr Caleb Kapengule
Sungani’s father, Deselino Sungani, expressed gratitude for the treatment his son received at the rural hospital, which identified a donor to cover his medical expenses.
He says: “My son was in pain and we were told that he was on the brink of death. He could hardly eat. I thank God for the exceptional treatment we received. He is now able to do his farm work.”
Similarly, Austin Mika underwent a life-changing operation at the hospital after suffering severe typhoid which damaged his intestines.
This subjected him to immense pain and depression.
His mother, Liness Chizimu, recounts: “Austin was unwell for an extended period, depleting our resources due to hospital trips and stays.
“We devoted our time to his care instead of engaging in income-generating activities for our family.”
These inspiring stories highlight the incredible work of five volunteer doctors under the Paacs resident programme.
The team comprises four expatriates and one Malawian from Nkhoma Mission Hospital.
The programme was designed to train African physicians to become surgeons committed to serving Africa.
It is currently training the first four Malawians pursuing masters of general surgery to address the country’s surgical needs.
Launched in January 2022, the initiative, led by Dr Jens Vaylann, has performed over 2 000 surgeries, increasing the monthly cases from about 160 to over 250 at the hospital.
Paacs has also established an intensive care unit (ICU) at the hospital and has plans to expand the theatre to accommodate more patients.
Stuebing is specialised in general surgery trauma, emergency surgery and critical care.
She expressed her wish and commitment to staying in Malawi for over a decade to make a lasting difference.
“Building a training programme like this takes time. This is a long-term commitment for us.
“My family moved here with me, signifying that we aren’t leaving anytime soon.”
The devoted medical volunteers entirely rely on donations from churches and individuals in the US. The Christian Health Service Corp helps them to raise funds for their medical inroads.
She says: “Local students are fully sponsored by Paacs. After completing their five-year course, they are expected to serve for at least five years at a Paacs-approved hospital as a form of repayment for the sponsorship.”
In Malawi, Nkhoma Mission Hospital in Lilongwe and Malamulo Adventist Hospital in Thyolo are the beneficiaries of this programme.
Paacs collaborates closely with the College of Surgeons of East, Central and Southern Africa (Cosecsa) in its training programme.
Yamikani Limbe, the only Malawian among the five consultants, doubles as Cosecsa programme director and Paacs assistant programme director.
He says the plan is to expand the resident students’ intake and broaden the type of surgeries done at the hospital to reduce the number of patients referred to Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe and complement the country’s universities.
Nkhoma Hospital director Salvador de la Torre said that through the programme, the hospital has acquired modern skills and equipment, enabling health workers to assist more patients at a competitive charge.
He explains: “While 70 percent of our total budget is sponsored by donors, we still need to cover the remaining 30 percent.
“Consequently, we ask patients to contribute a significant amount to cover some of the costs. Some patients pay as low as K50 000 for a procedure that costs up to K3 million.”
Nevertheless, the hospital ensures that no one is denied services, thanks to other programmes that assist patients who cannot afford the bills.
Paacs reports that 56 million people in Africa require surgical care, yet 93 percent of sub-Saharan Africa lacks access to timely and affordable safe surgical, anesthesia, and obstetric care.
In many parts of Africa, a single surgeon serves a population of 250 000.
Nkhoma Mission Hospital, bolstered by its dedicated volunteer doctors, stands as a beacon of hope for countless individuals like Sungani and Mika.
This illustrates the transformative power of selfless medical service in underserved communities.