What’s it like to volunteer at Lifebox?

“In every aspect of life, the phrase ‘the more you learn, the more you realise how little you know’ seems to ring true – yet in the context of volunteering with Lifebox on my gap year, it has never felt more apt. I came to the office vaguely conscious of my naivety: fresh from sixth form, the notion of working in global health was appealing and, eagerly armed with my copies of “Half the Sky” and “Mountains Beyond Mountains”, I was keen to learn.

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Nearly six months down the line, while my knowledge has increased, I’m also increasingly aware of my limited understanding of global health’s huge economic, social and political facets. My eyes have been opened to the challenges of trying to make a difference, although I’m sure I’ve yet to fully appreciate the scale of these challenges.

Each week I’ve been lucky enough to see behind the scenes of an international charity – the nuts and bolts of an organisation successfully delivering equipment and education to remote hospitals around the world, all conducted from a small office in central London.

Communicable diseases – HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria – tend to get a lot of media coverage, while non-communicable diseases and the global surgery crisis are rarely given attention. I was unaware of unsafe surgery’s significance for billions of individuals around the world until I started to volunteer with Lifebox; a position many of the general public are still in. Considering the magnitude of the problem, it is a travesty global surgery doesn’t receive more coverage.

Shift in burden of disease

Lifebox has exposed me to the virtual global health community, and seeing what people are thinking, saying, and then actively going and doing, is really inspiring. Social media is undoubtedly a useful tool for raising awareness and making connections, and it has been great seeing the likes of Facebook and Twitter being used for something other than posting selfies and pictures of cats (lovely though they are).

Papua New Guinea_surgical team with oximeter

I’ve volunteered with Lifebox through a busy few months – 8th March was International Women’s Day, which saw the wider launch of Lifebox’s “MAKE IT 0®” campaign, and I felt privileged to overhear some of the interviews taking place, interviews which went on to build the striking online compilation of real women’s experiences with surgery. An equal privilege was being able to help out at Lifebox Day, an exciting event in January which saw the gathering of many motivational safe surgery advocates, sharing their experiences of practice in low resource areas and ideas for how to move forward.

Mozambique_questions from the audience

Volunteering with Lifebox has been such a valuable, inspiring experience for me. I start medical school in September and really hope to pursue this area of healthcare further – the option to intercalate with a BSc in Global Health is definitely looking appealing at the moment. While there is still an appalling disparity in access to safe surgery globally, the determination of passionate individuals fighting for change is promising; one thing I’ve definitely learned is that there really is infinite possibility for progress.”

Oximeters make a difference on Make A Gif

Robyn Evans spent six months as a volunteer with Lifebox Foundation. She is currently volunteering with Orion and will be starting medical school later this year.

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Lifebox Day

When two global surgery events come along at once you don’t grumble.  Unlike a bad bus day, you get on board!

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As Lifebox chairman, surgeon, author and casual time traveler Atul Gawande (bodily in Boston and telegenically in London) explained by video,  “the global health landscape is changing.  For the first time in history, you’re more likely to be killed by a surgically-treatable condition than a communicable disease.”  

The struggle to activate a response to this shift has precedence: the WHO Global Initiative for Emergency and Essential Surgical Care (GIEESC) launched in 2005, the Bellagio Essential Surgery Group convened in 2007.

Still, our ‘neglected stepchild’ is dangerously out of synch with global need.  As the MDGs count down to expiration in 2015, the need to act is clear and urgent.

Shift in burden of disease

So this past weekend we kept one eye on the live stream as the world’s best minds gathered in Boston for the first meeting of the Lancet Commission on Global Surgery, and another on the world’s other best minds, gathered in London for Lifebox Day!

AudienceMore than 60 colleagues with an interest in global surgery swapped a rare sunny Saturday for a darkened room in the Camden People’s Theatre.  Never mind the artificial light: the right speakers and the right conversation let in the great wide world, and we were thrilled to join such a passionate, thoughtful, global group, looking to make noise about a silent crisis.

We were in good company!  Atul introduced our patron Lord Bernard Ribeiro, past president of the Royal College of Surgeons, who reminisced about being (gently) strong-armed into joining the Lifebox mission.  

Patron and Board members

“It just goes to show that surgeons and anaesthetists can learn from each other,” he said, introducing  with a lordly smile the broadest theme of the day: trust.

Trusting you with my story.

Trusting you with my patients.

Trusting you with my life.

A permanent improvement in the safety and quality of surgical care in low-resource settings doesn’t happen overnight – and why should we expect it to?  Like anything in life, long-term solutions take long-term commitment.

“You must invest your time in this,” explained Dr Stephen Ttendo, past president of the Ugandan Society of Anaesthesia  “If you don’t gain trust, you will fail.”

Dr Ttendo joined Lifebox friends and colleagues Dr Faye Evans (Georgia fundraiser and a Rwanda oximetry lead) Dr Tom Bashford (Ethiopia implementation) and Dr Ed Fitzgerald (Lifebox clinical advisor and WHO Surgical Safety Checklist implementation lead), to talk about experiences of global surgery in low-resource settings.

Panel sessionThis means confronting the brutal reality that universal solutions to universal problems don’t have universal application.  As Dr Sophia Webster of Flight for Every Mother reminded us, all women are  at risk from the same complications during pregnancy – but only in some countries do they die from them.

The obstetrician, recently returned from her solo flight across 26 countries in Africa to raise awareness of unsafe pregnancy, took the room on the journey with her.

The next speaker stayed in trajectory, swinging the NHS via NASA and heading for space. Anaesthetist, Extreme A&E and Horizon presenter Dr Kevin Fong‘s investigation of risk and how we learn from our errors made the audience laugh, sober up sharply, and then laugh again, but nervously this time – mistakes can seem so silly till they happen.

kevin fong2

burritosFuel for ire and action – and probably time for lunch.  Enter Chipotle, the only local restaurant to not only answer their phones in friendly style, but enthusiastically agree to sponsor lunch at Lifebox Day!  A grateful dash to the Mexican grill’s Wardour Street branch and we were back with 70 burritos – a very practical conference snack as it happens.

Another generous donation from our friends in the north at Thomas Tunnock Ltd kept the room sweet through tea time.

Tunnocks

Doctors and nurses spend their days on close terms with life and death – no wonder they make powerful poets and writers, and we were so pleased to see the Lifebox crowd in strong metre!  Poems took the top three spots in the Lifebox Competition, and second prize winner Emily Lear was on hand to read her submission.

Maybe it was the theatrical setting but somehow the words “champagne coloured wee” never sounded so dramatic, while the last couplets –

But if the worst happens, if things aren’t as planned / If you find yourself holding a relative’s hand: / It is those humble numbers which helped us to say / We did all that we could and in just the right way.

Emily Lear_poem

– reminded the room, in ways that statistics make it easier to forget, that unsafe surgery is a tragedy – and a burden of grief that isn’t fairly shared.

The human cost of lack of access to safe surgery worldwide was given an unflinching, high definition focus in a new documentary: The Right To Heal, directed by surgeon Jaymie Henry, and screened at Lifebox Day for only the second time in the U.K.

Dr Henry, born in the Philippines, spoke with passion and experience about what she and her team have seen on the road, camera in hand.  Her subjects appeal for attention – and trust enough to tell you their stories.  The 15 x 15 Campaign is one of the ways that Jaymie and her colleagues at the International Collaboration for Essential Surgery (ICES) are working to make good on that  decision.

Lifebox was founded in 2011 to make surgery safer in countries where lack of equipment and training means that undergoing a life-saving operation is, perversely, one of the most dangerous thing to do.

We left Lifebox Day as airborne as Sophia and Kevin’s flightmobiles, after a day in company that is striving to support a world where access to safe surgery is a right, not a privilege.  Thanks to team efforts, this largely silent global health crisis is starting to make noise.

As Omiepirisa Yvonne Buowari, a Nigerian anasthetist and one of the competition winners wrote,

Team work is good. / We can beat our chest and say / Together, each achieves much.

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