Hope restored: The power of free surgeries in transforming lives of children in Zimbabwe

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By Tatenda Chimbwanda/World Health Organisation

MUTARE, Zimbabwe – Mr Nicholas Mwanditani’s son Ngakudzwe, was diagnosed with inguinal hernia when he was only four years old. With little knowledge of the condition- and no money to seek medical help- Nicholas who is a tiler had no option but just pray so that his son would feel less pain.

It was all in vain as nothing changed, the pain stalked the little boy.

The family’s hands were “tied” as they helplessly watched Ngakudzwe’s struggle, the most difficult phase in his life.

“As a father it really broke my heart as l watched my son in pain for years. l was hopeless most of the time, as a parent knowing l could not do anything. The hernia repair surgery costs USD500 and l could not afford it. As a tiler, I only make less than USD50 a month,” explained Nicholas.

It was no easy for Ngakudzwe, the piercing pain was too much for his little body. Most of his childhood memories have been clouded by excruciating pain from his abdomen, which would swell up every month- a traumatizing experience for a four-year-old. For five years Ngakudzwe missed school every month as the pain would become extremely unbearable. Nicholas vividly recalls how his son’s school performance was affected.

Ngakudzwe, too, missed out on quite several activities like athletics, running down the street, playing with wire cars just like what other kids his age did. From a distance, Ngakudzwe became a mere spectator of what other children his age enjoyed. When they played soccer, his favorite sport Nyakudzwe sat on the sidelines, imagined how he could have tackled the ball, had he been fit. Yet the hernia deterred him, playing soccer was a far- fetched dream.

When Nicholas heard about the Ministry of Health and Child Care (MoHCC) pediatric hernia repair camp on social media, he immediately borrowed transport money from his friends in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital so he could travel to Mutare some 300KM away. This was his only chance to change his son’s life.

Speaking on the sideline as his son was in the recovery room soon after the surgery, Nicholas explained with tears of joy.

“This camp has been a dream come true. My son’s life has been changed forever, he can now have a normal life and play his favorite sport soccer. l am so grateful to those who made it possible. l only had to spend money on transport. A smaller cost compared to the amount l would have paid for this surgery.”

Ngakudzwe is one of the 100 children aged 2-12 years who received free hernia repair during the MoHCC surgical camp held between 20-24 March 2023 at Victoria Chitepo Provincial Hospital in Mutare. The surgical camp was led by Sally Mugabe Central Paediatric Surgeon Dr Precious Mtambanengwe whose team comprised of 6 anesthetists, 3 pediatric surgeons, 6 surgical nurses and 24 registered nurses from Victoria Chitepo Provincial Hospital.

Dr Precious Mtambanengwe indicated how the surgical camp also demonstrated how Zimbabwe has qualified health workers to conduct such surgeries lacking only resources to meet the high demand. “This camp brought the services close to the people,” she said.

Victoria Chitepo Provincial Hospital, Medical Superintendent Dr Jaensch Mutende highlighted the importance of the surgical camp which addressed the need for hernia repair in the community and allowed them to attend to more children and reduce the number of patients on their long waiting list.

The surgical camp was conducted by MoHCC with technical and financial support from World Health Organization (WHO), Celebration Health, Smile Train and UNICEF. The surgical camp is a testimony of MoHCC efforts in accelerating access to essential surgical services in line with the National Surgical, Obstetric and Anesthesia Strategy (NSOAS) 2022-2025.

The WHO Zimbabwe support was made possible with the generous funding from the Government of Japan which committed USD633,975 to strengthen access to safe, timely and affordable Surgical, Obstetric and Anesthesia (SOA) care services in Manicaland and Matabeleland North Provinces in 2023.

“The camp is part our support to the MoHCC to accelerate access to timely to affordable, safe and quality surgical services to the Zimbabwean community, especially the vulnerable who cannot afford the cost of surgery. This is an intervention that directly contributes towards Zimbabwe’s National Health Agenda, to achieve Universal Health Coverage (UHC) by 2030. Surgical services remain a key component of UHC,” said WHO Zimbabwe SDG3 GAP Technical Officer Dr Thenjiwe Sisimayi.

A hernia occurs when an organ or tissue in the body such as a loop of the intestine pushes through a weakened area in the abdominal wall. This bulge is called hernia, which may look like a lump causing discomfort in children such as swelling of the abdomen and serve pain when it remains untreated. Corrective surgery is required to treat an inguinal hernia. In many cases, surgery is done soon after the hernia is found. The two most common pediatric hernias in Zimbabwe are inguinal hernias in the groin area and umbilical hernias in the belly-button area.