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Children’s doc gives back with Ghana trip

Robin Hamilton

They came from every corner of the country.

Parents and children walked for miles and miles across the Ghanaian terrain to meet the man who could give them hope.

With a team of his colleagues from Children’s Hospital Boston, cardiac surgeon Dr. Francis Fynn-Thompson became known as the miracle man who could restore a child’s beating heart.

While Fynn-Thompson is a full-time physician at Children’s, he is offering his talents, as well as those of his peers, to some of the neediest children in Africa. Just last month, he and a team of surgeons, nurses and other staff traveled to Ghana’s capital, Accra, to perform surgery on children suffering from congenital heart defects.

“I felt that it would be particularly important to have a mission like this for Ghana,” he says. “There isn’t a center per se to perform pediatric heart surgery.”

Fynn-Thompson’s affinity for Ghana is natural. He was born and raised there by parents who were both physicians. He left his country at 18 to attend college at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in biology and health care development. He would later attend Harvard Medical School.

His training eventually led him to Children’s Hospital, where he is working as a cardiac surgeon at the age of 36. But he always knew he would return to his homeland and give back.

“Obviously I was from there, and I saw the need,” he said. “I knew what the need was.”

Initially, he wasn’t sure how he would give back. One day, he heard several nurses talking about a medical mission trip they took to Nicaragua, and he asked how they went, and who funded them.

That’s when he was introduced to the Variety Club, a private organization that funds medical missions between the United States and underserved countries all over the world. So he made his case, to both Children’s Hospital and the Variety Club.

“I felt that it would be particularly important to have a mission like this for Ghana,” he says. “I am fortunate that I have a hospital that allows me to do this work and travel.”

Fynn-Thompson says the rate of congenital heart defects in Ghana is no higher than in the United States. The difference is that most children here in the U.S. have access to life-saving treatment. Children in Ghana don’t.

“These surgeries can … prolong the life of a child,” he says.

Fynn-Thompson emphasizes that the mission’s goal isn’t simply to fly in and fly out of the country — at the end of the trip, he wants Ghanaians to have the tools to sustain the teachings and provide this important care for their own citizens.

“The local physicians keep a database of every single patient seen,” Fynn-Thompson says. “The patients are well cared for. We are hoping to have a center where this will be long-term.”

That was another reason he selected Ghana — he believed it possessed several characteristics that made it a good match for his purposes.

“Ghana is uniquely situated in Africa in that it is the one place [on the continent] that has a stable government, is a safe place to travel to, and they speak English,” he says.

His preparations began last July, where he took a site visit to the medical center in Accra. Confident that the mission was a possibility, he tried the first mission in October, bringing over much of the necessary equipment: heart lung bypass machines, ventilators, intensive care unit monitoring equipment, disposable catheters, medications, surgical headlights and other electrical materials. Much of this equipment was donated by Children’s Hospital and private donors.

“In October, we saw 40-50 patients,” he recalls. “Then the word got out that we were coming back for a mission in March.”

When Fynn-Thompson returned in early March with a staff of 27, including three cardiologists, an anesthesiologist, nine nurses and other medical support personnel, the response was overwhelming.

“There were endless patients to be seen. There were even children from other parts of Africa,” he says. “If we needed any more confirmation for why we were there, that was it.”

The days were long, and there was plenty of work. On this 10-day mission, the staff evaluated over 100 children. Of those, the team could only operate on 12 patients.

“We were very selective in who we picked for surgery,” Fynn-Thompson explains. “That was the hardest part of the mission.”

Each surgery could last as long as four to five hours, and the prep work involved for each was substantial, with some staff setting up the operating room while others tended to families.

Monique Lewis, an administrative assistant at Children’s Hospital Boston’s Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, made it her responsibility on this trip to put parents and children at ease.

“We set up in a hall in a clinic, and we gave them crayons, tried to play with them, and helped them out, and got to know the parents,” she says.

One thing that stood out to Lewis was the attitude of the children, who seemed less afraid of major surgery than grateful for the opportunity to have it.

“No tears,” Lewis says. “None of the children were crying. They were overwhelmed with happiness.”

If anyone cried, it was Lewis.

“The smiles on their faces,” she pauses, choking up. “I get tears just thinking about it. I will never be the same. It just touched my heart so much.”

Lewis remembers one patient that she followed from beginning to end.

“His name was David,” she said. “I was with him from the time he was evaluated until the surgery. I was able to watch the surgery from start to finish. It was the most fascinating thing I have ever watched.”

For Fynn-Thompson, the trip exceeded all of his expectations.

“I think that it is very gratifying. I must confess, I always hoped in my career that I could come back and do this,” he says. “I feel very honored to be in this position so early in my career. I think it feels very good.”

But their work is far from over. Fynn-Thompson wants to try and go back every six months with his team until he believes the Accra clinic is self-sufficient.

In the meantime, Fynn-Thompson has worked closely with the local physicians of those patients ineligible to undergo an operation to put as many children as possible on a regimen to improve their health. He emphasizes it is this partnership that will make the mission successful.

“It’s been more than what I thought it would be,” he says. “The enthusiasm, the support from the hospital, is much more than what I ever expected. The involvement of the government and the press … we are all doing this because we want to help individual children. We will have a legacy that will last a long time.”