A baby is born

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A baby girl is born. So what’s so amazing about that? We’ll call the girl Rahel which isn’t her real name. Her birth mother had just been left by her husband, and none of her family wanted her. She was an epileptic, and fell into a fire and was very seriously burned. She lost her left breast and had serious full thickness burns on her left side and down her left arm. She was pregnant and at term. She delivered Rahel the day after she was admitted to the hospital. The mother would have nothing to do with her, I think understandably in the circumstances. The mother was dreadfully ill and sadly weeks later died, after lots of treatment. There were no relatives around.

But the story is about Rahel. She was taken to the special care baby unit, where after a few days they rebelled and said she wasn’t a sick baby so she couldn’t stay there. So she was brought into her mother’s ward, my wife bought infant formula for her, but they rebelled for the same reasons. So we brought her to our house while we tried to work out a solution. We were in the middle of adopting our second Ethiopian son who was about 10 at the time. We all loved her but didn’t feel as if we could or would be allowed to adopt her. Our next door neighbours were Europeans, supervising the care of  street kids whom they placed in willing local homes and financially supported the families to cover the cost of an extra child. Our neighbours knew English but their prime languages were different. Thus their household spoke four languages – their two home country languages (very different), English and Amharic, the common language of the local populous. They already had three boys of their own but after some consideration decided they would like to adopt her.

My wife, although she loved her very much felt that we should not even try to adopt her. I agreed. So when they decided to take her we were sad/glad to let them have her to see how the boys accepted her. They loved her dearly.

Then one after the other the three boys came down in series with chickenpox. So for the baby’s sake she came back to live with us until the risk of her getting the disease was over. Many times a day the non-infected boys would come to our door, accusing us of stealing her. They wanted her back.

During this time we went to a town a couple of hundred kilometres away to visit our first adopted Ethiopian, who was back in the country courting a young lady who is now his wife and the mother of their two children. IMG_2944 copy We were sitting in a little restaurant with our two boys and little Rahel. At a nearby table were sitting two well dressed men. They were talking in the tribal language of our son who overheard  and understood their conversation. Apparently there had recently been several cases of foreigners stealing babies to sell on the black market. They were policemen. They were deciding as to whether or not they should arrest us. Our son went over and spoke with them, explaining our situation. Then we joined them and it was all sorted out.

Chickenpox doesn’t last for ever and the family joyfully took Rahel back. The boys forgave us for stealing her! But then the birth mother’s relatives, who hadn’t come to the hospital, as soon as a legal adoption process began, came forward. They didn’t want her, but surely she was worth something. All I know is that after a bit of trouble they were able to adopt her.

The last time I saw her one of our Australian sons was with us. He knew one of the parent’s language. She sat on his knee and spoke with him in that language for about half an hour. IMG_1441 copy 2She spoke with us fluently in English. She also knew her other parent’s language and apparently knows Amharic well. At six she was fluent in four languages. Truly the little girl is well and truly born! The parents have since had another child of their own. A little girl.

You might not like the pictures below the ‘more’ line. They are of the birth mother’s burns.

Continue reading “A baby is born”

A view of Obstetrics




Having a family is exciting! Maybe not all beer & skittles but fantastic!




Modern obstetric care in the ‘so called’ first world countries is on the whole excellent. In quoting statistics one must remember the old adage ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’. The internet tells us that in the best countries the maternal mortality rate is 2/100,000 live births. In Ethiopia it is 421/100,000 live births, and I’m sure that it was worse 50 years ago. Around the world there is apparently an obstetric tragedy every 11 seconds. I cannot find figures for maternal deaths when the baby is born dead. That is the world I entered in 1968. This doesn’t include those who live with vesico-vaginal fistulae, of which there are 9,000 new cases annually in Ethiopia (quoted by the late Dr. Catherine Hamlin); nor those who survive ruptured uterus. I’m sure many of these died before they reached a hospital where they could be operated on.

I took out the figures in Soddo (my second long stay in Ethiopia) over a year period and we had a 95% survival rate of those who reached hospital alive. I had reopened the hospital in Soddo in 1993 after the country was freed from the communist era. I was the only surgeon there.  I was on call 24/7. After a while we had an obstetrician there who did the day O&G work and was on call at night every second week for obstetric emergencies. But initially I did them all , and later out-of-hours cases every second week. I was also called in to deal with the situation if there was also a ruptured bladder, which occurs in about 10% of cases.

I shall only mention one case here, as I know medicine isn’t everyone’s ‘cup of tea’. My children say they were brought up on such things around the tea table.

In the countryside antenatal care was almost non existent. We ran such a clinic, but few attended and everyone was so busy we didn’t chase things up as hard as we ideally should have done. Most babies were delivered at home. People didn’t come to the hospital until things were obviously seriously wrong. If you lived, for instance, 50km from the hospital, for the majority, there were neither ambulances nor roads so they had to be carried on stretchers over mountainous tracks and crossing waterways. People were frightened to travel at night; and it took, I am told, above 20 people to carry the patient, sharing the work; so it is not surprising that people arrived late.

My first case of ruptured uterus came within a few days of my arriving on my first time in Ethiopia. I was the only doctor in the place. The story apparently was that the labour made no progress, so the native healer tried to do what we call an internal podalic version. In other words by putting his/her hand inside the uterus they intended to turn the baby to get the feet at the bottom so that they could have something to hold onto to attempt to pull the baby out. I don’t know how but whoever it was managed to tear up the front of the vagina and uterus as well as the back of the bladder from top to bottom, and they still could not deliver the baby. The patient obviously rapidly became much sicker and she was brought into the hospital. The baby was dead, but I repaired the long internal tears and she recovered.

abd in ruptured uterus
The double bubble is what is usually seen in a ruptured uterus

Unfortunately she developed a small fistula for which she was sent to the ‘Hospital by the River’ in Addis. She did well and was later delivered of a healthy child. I’m not sure where she fits into the statistics. Later when I was met with both a bladder as well as a uterine tear I used to bring down some mobilised omentum to separate the uterus and the bladder.


Surgical teaching facilities

African sunset
Over my time in Ethiopia I’ve worked in a number of Ethiopian government or University hospitals. I’ve had periods between two and five years over the time that I’ve been there, and for shorter periods in three others. Each morning in all of them it was seen as important  to discuss the previous day’s admissions and operations.

A number of medical schools were suddenly started when the government decided they needed more doctors. There are over 20 at the moment, but remember the country’s population is now said to be 105 million. They didn’t have adequate qualified people to teach in any department or even adequate hospital facilities, at least in Arba Mintch.
Just as students began their clinical years of training in Arba Mintch, I transferred from Jimma University to Arba Mintch. I was paid by the University but, added to my University teaching responsibilities, I was expected to be the major surgeon at the hospital.

These, previously described, morning meetings were certainly held for the surgical department in Arba Mintch. I’m not sure about what happened in the other departments. Senior staff, post graduate trainees, interns and students were all meant to attend. In the established universities, where there had been trainees and students for a much longer period there were already buildings appropriate to the needs ; but this was not so in Arba Mintch. In Arba Mintch the University did not have an attached University hospital, so the students were sent to the Government Hospital, which was not given a grant to provide buildings for the students’ needs.

Initially we had 40 students per year, but by the time I left there were 170 per year. There were certain requirements laid down in the University laws which each student had to obey. For instance they had to attend 95% of all lectures and be signed in to have watched 20 operations. Apart from the first year of clinical attachment (4th year) we had students with us all the time as at that time there was no fifth year group. When the numbers were small we had the younger group half the academic year and the other half year we had the more senior class. Although they were with us full time for their attachment we didn’t have them all the time as they had to attend other departments as well. But at the end, because of the increase in numbers, in order to keep groups at a manageable size we had groups from both years all the time time.

Jimma mm
This is the group in the adequate room at Jimma.

For our morning meeting the expected attendance was – 3 surgeons; 2 or occasionally 3 post graduate students; 4 interns and up to about 65 students. The shed which we were given had no ceiling, old chairs, without enough for the people and no room for any more. The shed was about 10m by 7m. It is easy to imagine how crowded it was. So, as fortunately most were pretty slim, we could sit two per chair for some of them. I think some of them enjoyed that! We three surgeons had a general hospital to run, as well as the University department to run. In addition we were involved in the teaching programs for nurses, public health workers, anaesthetic students, and a course which tried to teach health assistants basic surgical procedures. Of course there were as well exams to be set and marked. We divided the numbers and apart from the morning meetings, which all had to attend, put a third under the wings of each surgeon. Not, of course, that I’m complaining or that I thought it ridiculous!!

daily chart
This is about an average number of cases to be presented, assessed, and taught about each morning meeting. Note the doctor’s writing!

The morning meetings lasted about an hour, then one surgeon had a clinical teaching ward round for his third of the students; followed by a ward round for the interns and nurses of the 60 or so patients in the surgical wards. One of the other surgeons was in the operating room. He had his third of the students with him. The third surgeon was in referral clinic with his third of the students.

Dominic Cartier

PS I have opened a second blog under my real name and it deals in a bit more depth and with a few more gory pictures with some of my unusual problems. It is called Medical Memoirs at hicksmedical.wordpress.com 

Nazret v Adama

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For many years the rulers of Ethiopia were from the Amhara tribe. Their religion is orthodox Christianity and they changed other tribal names of towns and areas to suit their desires, often to Biblical names. With the several changes of government over the last nearly 50 years many names have been reversed to their former names and Nazret (Nazareth) is again Adama.  (The Oromos use a lot of doubling of letters to show how long a letter is to sound. They spell it Adaamaa). Is that of significance to this post? Well, yes it is. With the rise of tribalism, local people were put into positions which had previously been filled with Amharas, that is members of the then ruling tribe – not that they either were always a perfect fit for their posting. The replacements were not always well qualified. Thus the CEO of the Nazret hospital was now from the Oromo tribe. The young surgeon who wanted me to come was an Amhara. The Oromos are an Islamic tribe in the main. So when I was brought before him, the question was why he should allow this foreigner into his hospital at the request of an Amhara. There was not open hostility but below the surface suspicion.

My friend had told me that the boss had had several unsuccessful attempts to have a large umbilical hernia repaired. The hernia was visibly bulging through his shirt. So, somehow or other, it became the conversation piece. Eventually I persuaded him , if I could get a nylon mesh imported from Australia, to allow me to repair the hernia again. I promised him a 98% success rate. He agreed, and I was allowed ‘in’ to help my friend. His operation went well.

Note – in fact promising 98% sounds good but for each individual the outcome of a complication is either zero or a hundred percent. You get trouble or you don’t. He didn’t, so everything was okay for me after that. He was a happy, now cooperative, customer.

In fact it hadn’t been easy for me to make the decision to go there. Prior to meeting  the CEO my wife and I had gone down, on a public holiday afternoon, to inspect what was involved. The wards were much like most Ethiopian hospitals; the surgeon was obviously trying his hardest without a lot of administrative cooperation. Not that they were against him but they had no real understanding of how to run a hospital.

But, as a surgeon, I was particularly interested in what the operating rooms were like. And seeing what we saw it was a hard choice to agree to work in them. There had been a procedure done the night before. The room had not been cleaned up; there was dirty linen on the floor and a considerable amount of blood about. A window was broken and there were flies feasting on the tasty morsels which they could smell and easily find. So in choosing to go I undertook to do and to get done quite a bit before my first operating list.

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Their operating room was much worse than this!

The school at which I taught part-time Because of Bilingual Canada had a rule that the year 10 students had to have a civic experience in the community for a couple of days during the school year. That year I bought some materials, and the students with the day workers from the school all came down and the windows and screens repaired, a decent setup for pre-operation scrubs put in place, the OR complex was painted and an emu parade performed over the hospital grounds to clean up the very messy area. Thank you, school.

Adama has a population of about 500,000 and an elevation of just over 1,700 metres (nearly 6000 feet).

Dominic Cartier

A boy to remember/a surgeon to forget.


As older professionals, whatever that profession is, we were all young and inexperienced once. So one must not be too judgemental of others’ mistakes. I used to tell my students that we all make mistakes, but, if possible, reduce your own by learning from the mistakes of others.

I mentioned in a previous post  When to leave the training nest? that, for a time, I visited and operated with/for a friend every Friday. One week I discovered that a second, just graduated surgeon had been appointed there. Neither my friend nor I knew anything about him, but as there were 2 operating rooms he suggested that we had to appoint someone upon whom the new chap should be the surgeon. Maybe one of us should have watched him, but we were in the other operating room, both involved in a complex case.

To divert – you can get hernias in many places but the commonest are in the groin or at/near the umbilicus. A rough, workable definition of a hernia is a bulge of an organ (or part thereof) through what normally contains it. Basically three words are used in describing the way you repair a hernia.

  1. Herniotomy – the simplest of the three, where you push back the contents and just cut off the sac, which is usually a bit of peritoneum. This is the common way of repairing a child’s groin hernia.
  2. Herniorrhaphy – where you sometimes include a herniotomy but then try to repair back to normal anatomy.
  3. Hernioplasty – wherein you sometimes do the above but try to strengthen things by rotating something or adding some foreign material, usually some sort of plastic mesh.

We chose for him to operate on an about 8 year old boy with a common type hernia on which you did the simplest of the three repairs above, in colloquial language, it should have been a cinch. He did his operation and the boy was sent back to the ward.

On the next morning, while seeing my patients from the previous day, I came across this boy, screaming in pain and in obvious great distress. He had an exquisitely tender mass extending from his umbilicus to just above his right knee.

He was not my patient and I was not the head of surgery. So I asked my friend to contact the surgeon who had operated and ask him to see his patient. The guy didn’t answer his phone. I needed to go, so I suggested that my friend try to ring again in about an hour but that if didn’t come that my friend would have to re-operate himself – he was very capable to do that. The guy answered the next time, but refused to come; my friend operated. The top of the bladder had been cut off and left open, so the mass was all urine.

I’ve never heard on any occasion of such a thing happening. Can I forgive him? As I said at the beginning we all make mistakes. I find it very hard to understand this mistake, but certainly I don’t forgive his refusal to come when called to review his patient.

The kid recovered, but instead of a day case, his recovery took quite a while.

I have at least one follower who hates medical photos so BEWARE below the line. Continue reading “A boy to remember/a surgeon to forget.”

Bites 2 – continuing the list.

Monkeys – we didn’t see a lot of monkey bites. There are of course many different types of monkey. In one place where we lived there were dozens of them. We had a lot of bananas but, against what we expected, they rarely ate them. They loved our guavas. There was a large tree abutting the back of our house. They would steal as many as they thought they could hold, run along the roof ridge and, no doubt accidentally, dropped some as they ran. Those dropped would clatter down the tin roof into the gutters; which was annoying, particularly at night! They would sit on the window looking through the bars, and you wondered who was looking at whom!

Who’s watching who? -At our kitchen window.

Guereza monkeys, brilliant with their black and white colours, leaping from tree to tree were gorgeous to watch. Staying for a break at the one of the Rift Valley lakes we saw lots of those monkeys with ‘painted’ backsides. They were thieves, watching carefully and awaiting the moment, they’d jump down and steal food from your table or even your hand.

Hyenas – people think that these are only scavengers, but they are prepared to attack living animals or humans. They can cause rabies. At night time our workers would not walk alone. There were always at least 2 or preferably more of them and armed with dullahs (heavy sticks) when walking outside..

The two cases which stand out in my mind are of two boys who came in (at separate times) both having been scalped. (photos below the ‘more’ line) The bone on the top of their heads was laid bare over many sq cms. You cannot graft onto bare bone. We had to drill multiple holes through the outer table of the skull, being very careful to not go right through the inner table of bone. The tissue in the centre of the bone (the marrow or medulla) granulated out through these holes and when it had covered the bare bone totally we could skin graft it. Both boys eventually did well even if they were prematurely bald, and needed to wear protection to protect their grafted skin from trauma and the sun. Thin (split) skin grafts don’t become normal skin again.

Wild boars (called kekero there). With their long tusks and bites they could tear skin and do a lot of damage. We had some that visited us daily in our garden. They learned how to turn on the tap in our back yard using their tusks – in order to get a drink. I wouldn’t have minded if they had only thought to turn them off. The locals told us when we arrived at that University that rhinoceroses came every afternoon. They got it wrong. We never saw a rhino but daily had boars visit us.



Crocodiles  are very common in the Rift Valley lakes. Crocodile teeth tear the skin and shatter the bones. We saw a lot of their bites as the people fished from very flimsy balsa wood boats.


Hippopotamuses- I clearly remember a number of hippopotamus bites, all very dramatic. The story of one boy is fascinating. The villagers were short of meat and decided a hippo would be good meat. Half the village got behind him and half on the other side; many with spears. Those at the back began to drive it forward. It began to move. The others were ready. The hippo saw them; didn’t like what he saw; began to charge at full and frightening speed. The villagers fled but this boy slipped and fell; the hippo was on him. The villagers killed the hippo and probably enjoyed the meat. The boy was brought to the hospital. He had a big gash on his chest, exposing but not breaking his ribs and a cut slicing his left buttock in two and the cut extending to the back of the knee. It was deep enough to expose the sciatic nerve, over a long segment, but did not divide the nerve.

We didn’t like getting too near hippos – they charged at you.

Another hippo bite that comes to mind is when a woman was leaning over near the edge of a lake doing her washing. A hippo came up behind her and bit her buttocks from top down laying them as if it they were an open purse. Fortunately  it was mainly skin and fat and was repaired fairly easily.

Dominic Cartier

Some hyena bite medical pictures below the line Continue reading “Bites 2 – continuing the list.”

Bites 1 – garden and domestic

These are some of the ones which came into our back garden and  who could turn on taps!

We all get bites at some time or other.

Insects bite are probably the commonest and they cause lots of problems. There are thousands around the world who die every year from malaria. The enlarged spleens which they often get make them more prone to getting ruptured spleens from traumatic episodes. There are also other nasty mosquito spread diseases. Ticks also bite and they can cause a variety of diseases. Scorpions –  their stings cause severe pain but usually not much else. Young children may get worse reactions as a few varieties are venomous. Injecting directly around the site with morphia gave the quickest and best results. You quickly had very happy customers. The above almost always cause medical diseases although there can be complications requiring surgery, and I’m a surgeon – so I tended to deal with bigger mouths and more traumatic bites.

Snakes – Their bites are not consistent in how they behave; that is they are either venomous or non- venomous, and there are a variety of venoms. The non-venomous just give you a nip without poison – scary but these are really a fairly minor issue. The venomous ones  have a variety of ways of causing major problems. Among them are neurological problems, bleeding diatheses, tissue death, allergic reactions, kidney failure. It is nice if you have specific antivenins available depending on the type of snake, but our patients tended to arrive late, and antivenins are much better if given early. The polyvalent antivenoms which we held in stock were not as good at any rate. The major problems we saw were of tissue damage with massive swelling needing splitting of the skin to relieve pressure, and often cutting away the dead tissue. Amputations were occasionally necessary, but more often we could cover the dead areas with skin grafting. Continue reading “Bites 1 – garden and domestic”

I know it is Easter but with no crowds!

If you feel lonely today – isolated – imagine yourself in one of these crowds or shopping in the street market at the bottom.

2017 graduation
Graduation Day Arba Mintch University. It includes the group of final year medical students that I taught. I think that I was the only white person there! I’m behind the camera if you’re looking for me!
A protesting crowd
A march in Addis – it went on & on & on!


Have a great day with your imaginitis!

Dominic Cartier

The extended work – part 2

African sunset

I have posted previously about my time working in a leprosarium.   Working in a leprosarium 1968-74  And about a non leprosy medical work. The leprosarium extended – part 1 I mentioned there that was more to this other side of the non-leprosy work beyond the medical work.

The Other works for the general community consisted of the following….

A school with an enrolment of about 600 for the surrounding community. This only went to grade 8. A significant number of the pupils were mature age coming to school for the first time to learn the 3Rs. So in grade 1 you might have a six year old sitting next to a 21yo. Teachers were in such short supply that after 3 years as a student you had to become a teacher for a year, before returning to your studies. It seemed to work. One student who went to the leprosy school is now a professor of surgery!

A church with associated outreach. We were in Muslim poorly educated area. So many of our workers in all departments were people from different tribal areas and most were Christians. So the church was several hundred strong. They didn’t have hymn books but many, not being able to read,  had developed their ability to memorise. So they had a wide variety of hymns of which they could sing a number of verses. I remember how if a baby would continue crying the preacher would say “haven’t you a breast, woman?”

There was a small administrative unit consisting of the station head and a secretary. They among many other things supervised an electricity generator as often the government service failed. This was a major problem if we were operating at the time the electricity went off line. Operating by torch light while you waited for the generator to be turned on was not fun! But we always kept one handy.

There were mission and government reports to be written, wages to be paid, equipment, medicines etc to be ordered (much of it from overseas, and months in advance). I’m glad someone else had to do it! Continue reading “The extended work – part 2”

The leprosarium extended – part 1

African sunset

I have previously posted about my time working in a leprosarium. Working in a leprosarium 1968-74  I mentioned there the other side of the work carried out on the same station. As leprosy only rarely has acute problems I spent most of my time in the non-leprosy part of the program. I only regularly spent 2 half days/week with the leprosy program, besides seeing the occasional emergency in the leprosy department.

Other work for the general community – this post will only discuss the second non- leprosy medical work. There were several other aspects for another day!

There was an (officially) 30 bed hospital with an added 12 bed TB ward and an attached outpatient clinic.

It was the only hospital covering a large area and several million people. Through the country there were scattered clinics run by dressers (they were not to nurse standard but with some training, and had permission to prescribe a few simple medications) and a few mission clinics but the nearest hospital south was about 80 km away; north 200 km; west 150 km; east several hundred km, and this in a heavily populated, very fertile, part of Ethiopia. We were at the cross roads which led in all 4 directions. At that time cars were few and far between and public transport was limited. As loaded trucks often carried many people on top of their loads we often had mass emergencies if there were major accidents. And there often were!

It really wasn’t beds for just 30 patients. We used to put smaller children one at the head and one at the foot of the bed. In times of great overload we used to sometimes put patients on mattresses under or between the beds. There were verandas on the east and west sides of the main building and we would spread mattresses on them. Sometimes in the rainy season there would  be a rush to change the ‘veranda’ patients to the other side away from the rain slanting in from one direction or the other. Most people chose to go to the clinics or to natural healers before a percentage came to us. We could never have survived if all those who should have, had come!

This general hospital had a small ‘operating room’ which was mainly used for obstetrical deliveries which needed forceps deliveries. More major cases, obstetric or other general cases, were taken to the OR in the leprosy hospital. We had few normal deliveries apart from the wealthier women from the nearby moderately large town. For a normal delivery they were charged about ten times as much as a poor person with a complicated pregnancy – something about robbing Peter to pay Paul. Unless there were problems after delivery these ladies were allowed to stay about half an hour.

The room was also used to reduce simple fractures and for suturing. The leaded room with the X-Ray machine was attached to the hospital. The machine was an old WW2 field one. A local young man was trained to take the simpler X-rays. See an example of one of the chest X-rays below.

In addition to the 30 beds there was a 12 bed TB complex. TB was very common. Only the very weak or those with complications, like lung collapse or paralysis from TB of the spine, were admitted. Another national worker was trained to aspirate chests and put in chest drains.

The  outpatient department was in a separate building. It included our small pathology department. We treated about 100+ cases a day. Apart from acute emergencies, who were sent directly to the emergency room in the hospital, all were seen initially by a dresser. If they couldn’t make a diagnosis, or if the patient returned with the same problem, they were referred to the nurse. If the problem still remained the nurse arranged for them to see the doctor sometime. I, or if there were 2 one of us, tried to visit outpatients just before I/we went to lunch.

Emergencies were common. I remember one day when 3 ladies with ruptured uterus came within 5 minutes of each other! As well as daytime surgeries, planned or emergency ones, many emergencies arrived out of normal hours, so we operated most nights as well on emergencies.

The 4 nurses had the following duties: One was in charge of the general hospital; one of the leprosy hospital including the OR; one in the leprosy outpatients; one in general outpatients. If we had 5, the fifth was on night duty for all the work – if there were only 4 they rotated around taking responsibility for both parts of the work at night. They were very competent and really acted as junior surgical registrars.

Below the more line is a picture of a chest X-ray of a TB patient. Continue reading “The leprosarium extended – part 1”