Mass Casualty

Jun 05 2012

By Rondi Kauffman, MD
Vanderbilt University: Department of General Surgery
Kijabe, Kenya

I took my first weekend of call this past weekend.  As I was checking on a patient Sunday evening, I was informed by my junior resident that there was a “mass casualty” bus accident in a nearby town, and the police had called to say they were bringing a number of victims to Kijabe Hospital. No one knew any additional details, and as I arrived in the Casualty unit (Emergency Department), a tour-bus size vehicle pulled through the front gate. Within minutes, injured patients began being rapidly unloaded. As the most senior resident present, I was in charge of triaging, organizing resuscitations and directing patient care until an attending arrived. We very quickly identified several patients needing immediate attention, and moved quickly to stabilize them.

I was amazed at the efficiency of the staff in identifying what needed to be done, getting supplies, and working as a cohesive team to get patients taken care of. Medical interns had turned out by the dozens to assist, nurses not on duty quickly arrived to work on starting IVs, and every attending who was in town showed up to lend a hand. What an amazing team of professionals! Someone brought a portable Sono-Site ultrasound that allowed us to perform FAST exams to look for intra-abdominal fluid in the Emergency Department. Xray techs worked overtime to image cervical spines and fractures, and several operating theaters were rapidly made ready for the injured who required operations. 

By last count, we had received 35 patients, some critically ill and all requiring some intervention (an operation, laceration closure, xrays etc).  All were stabilized, treated and admitted or discharged as appropriate within 6 hours. That many injured patients arriving at once would overwhelm almost every trauma center, but the team at Kijabe did an excellent job coming together to provide excellent trauma care in a setting with limited resources. 

By Rondi Kauffman, MD
Vanderbilt University: Department of General Surgery
Kijabe, Kenya 

One of the great benefits of spending time in a place like Kijabe is the opportunity to “cross train”.   I am a general surgery resident. But this week, I have learned a bit about being a urologist, an otolaryngologist, and an obstetrician.

Specialists are in very short supply in the developing world, and therefore, one needs to remain flexible and willing to learn new trades in order to take care of the patient in front of you.  It strikes me that, as American surgery continues to be further compartmentalized into narrower and narrower sub-specialties, international surgery provides the opportunity to remain not only a true “general surgeon”, but a medical doctor- treating the wide range of non-surgical complaints that find their way into the surgical clinic.  

By Rondi Kauffman, MD
Vanderbilt University: Department of General Surgery
Kijabe, Kenya 

Being diagnosed with a malignancy in Kenya is a very different thing than being diagnosed with a malignancy in the United States. CT scans and PET scans as means to evaluate for metastases are not locally available. A patient must travel to Nairobi, and frequently, these imaging studies are too expensive for most patients to afford. Furthermore, many malignancies are very advanced when they first come to the attention of a physician. Patients may delay being evaluated because of the cost, because of the distance required to get to a clinic, or because they must choose between obtaining health care and their family eating.  Finally, chemotherapy and radiation therapy have limited availability.  At the private hospitals, the costs are prohibitive for many patients which means that the queue to access the limited government sponsored facilities is exceedingly long making access to treatment all the more difficult.  As a result, all of the procedures I have done in my first week in Kenya on patients with malignancies have been palliative in nature. This is emotionally challenging for clinicians who are accustomed to being able to offer surgery for cure.  Still, it is a way by which to provide improved quality of life for whatever time a patient may have left, and that is certainly valuable to both the individual and their family.

It has struck me though, the number of malignancies I have seen here. I have been surprised- having expected rather to see more infectious diseases. I wonder if public health campaigns to provide mosquito nets, community education projects to teach about modes of transmission of HIV, and global health programs to provide free immunizations haven’t started to lead to some progress in the battle against communicable diseases in the developing world. Not that there isn’t still work to be done, but perhaps we are getting somewhere.   Maybe it is time to bring the fight against cancer to the forefront of the global health platform. There is clearly a need.

By Rondi Kauffman, MD
Vanderbilt University: Department of General Surgery
Kijabe, Kenya

I delivered a baby today. Via Cesarean section. And an intern taught me how. Three remarkable statements to be made by a General Surgery resident about to begin her Chief year.

I am finishing my fourth clinical year in General Surgery, and feel as though I have had remarkable training thus far- both in its depth, breadth and quality. Vanderbilt is a wonderful place to train as a surgeon. I am about to begin my Chief year, where I should be honing my skills and functioning as a junior attending. And yet here I was, three days into my stay in Kijabe, learning a brand-new operation that I’ve never seen, much less been a part of, from someone who is 6 weeks into his intern year. How humbling, how awesome.  What a reminder that every day is another opportunity to learn, to grow, to be stretched a bit more. I have already been amazed at the interns with whom I have had the opportunity to work here in Kenya. They are eager, they are confident, and they are desperately wanting to learn everything that they can from me, so that they can be better clinicians.  I have already enjoyed our interactions- as we both have so much to teach one another- mine from more years of clinical experience, and them from their familiarity with disease processes and presentations not commonly seen back home. I am eager to experience the many more opportunities that I will have to work side by side these amazing Kenyan trainees in the coming weeks.  

By Rebecca Pfaff
Meharry Medical College 
Riobamba, Ecuador


My first day with the Cinterandes Foundation we left for a trip to Palmer.  The large truck with an operating room in the back had left the day before and we traveled in a small vehicle.  This trip was my first time out of the Andes since my arrival a month earlier.  We drove the Cajas National park where llamas run down the middle of the highway and alpine lakes dot the landscape before we began the decent; the humidity and heat increasing and the vegetation changing from alpine to tropical with every turn of the road.  The houses also changed from concrete Spanish houses to wood houses on stilts with hammocks on the porches.  

 Palmer is a small pueblo of less than 2000 people on the Pacific Ocean and most of the people there are considered very poor by Ecuadorian standards.  There is a public health clinic run by a German born nurse who finds cases appropriate for these trips and pre-screens the patients so that when we arrived all that was to be done was review lab results, EKGs, and perform quick physical exams.  

 Two patients were turned away because of fever and one because of irregular heart rate.  The patients need to be carefully selected so that there are minimal complications with recovery because the PACU consists of cots in the clinic and the team leaves at the end of the week.  Dr. Rodas calls all patients to insure that they are recovering well, but this system works best when there are minimal complications.  Sometimes the surgeons travel with a family physician who sees patients while they operate.  However on this trip the team included Dr. Rodas and Dr. Sacoto, two well experienced surgeons.  

 Dr. Rodas founded Cinterandes because he felt that Ecuadorian doctors could help their population just as traveling Americans could.  He was inspired by the ship Hope and trained in the US but was born and raised in Ecuador.  Dr. Sacoto, the other surgeon is the dean of a medical school in Cuenca.  During the ride to Palmer he and I had a long conversation about evidence based medicine and the pedagogy of medicine.  There was also Dr. Anita the anesthesiologist and executive director of the organization.  Her role on the trip made me think about anesthesia in a whole new way.  She not only anesthetized patients from 5-76 years old and with everything from local nerve blocks to general anesthesia but also serves as an extra set of unsterilized hands in surgery helping with everything from preparing the patient (cleaning) to helping set up the laparoscopic equipment.  

 In Ecuador anesthesiologists are at a premium.  Dr. Cruz, the pediatrician I worked with in Riobamba is trained as a surgeon but works as a generalist because there is no anesthesiologist at the children’s hospital.  While working with the ob/gyn and head of the department in the public hospital in Riobamba, we had to wait two hours for an anesthesiologist to arrive so that he could operate. In addition, Dr. Anita is involved in primary care, coordinating rural rotations for medical students.  

 The final physician was Dr. Valasco who, like many physicians in Ecuador, is working as a physician before residency and after his year of rural service. He serves as the scrub tech but also does much of the pre- and post-operative care.  

 Like the physicians, the two other staff members had multiple jobs.  Freddy knows where absolutely everything is on the tightly packed truck and throughout all the surgeries the doctors often shouted, “Freeeeeedy” and he would appear from nowhere and supply the necessary item.

 The final members of the team were us 6 American medical students (there are usually also Ecuadorian students but they had final exams). We assisted in all surgeries and helped with pre- and post-operative care.  

 There seems to be 2 purposes to these trips.  First and foremost, the foundation truly believes that it is far more humane to provide surgeries, for carefully selected patients, close to their homes so that they are spared the expense of travel and the trauma of time away from their families.  Many of our patients needed these surgeries and would not have received them without this foundation.

 But students, both foreign and Ecuadorian, also play a role.  Not only do we bring labor, supplies, and funds to the organization, but the team of doctors all clearly enjoy teaching and explicitly encourage students to learn how to provide humanitarian medicine (for example instructing us on how to tie knots so as to spare suture).  It is a symbiotic relationship in which the students gain important skills and the team gains extra hands to help with the work.

 The surgeries performed were hernia repairs, lipoma removals (lipomas are benign tumors that can be disfiguring and painful), and lots of cholystestectomies.  Cholystestectomies are common here, not only because of the frequent occurrence of gallbladder disease, but also because gastric cancer is common here (more common than colon cancer in the Andean region).  In fact, endoscopy of stomachs rather then colons are the preventative tests of choice here and choystestectomies for symptomatic patients are considered part of prevention.  

 We worked for 3 days operating from 8 in the morning until long after dark and then rounding on patients recuperating in the clinic.  Many of surgeries were laproscopic and, save for the fact that the drapes and gowns are cotton rather then disposable paper and the conversations being in Spanish, you would never know you were outside the U.S., let alone in the back of a truck.

 It was a privilege to work with physicians helping their own people in this unique and creative way.  The Cinterandes team is traveling to the Sudan this year to help establish a similar truck there.  Hopefully the idea will catch on because it is a great way to utilize urban specialists to help poor rural populations without the need for expensive infrastructure development.

Truck 2RPfaff op room 3

Difficult Cases

May 09 2012

By Catherine Burger, MD
Vanderbilt University: Department of Emergency Medicine
Georgetown, Guyana 

Sometimes the most difficult parts of a job produce the situations you learn the most from. Often doctors will remember their most challenging patients for the rest of their lives and rarely forget what they’ve learned through those interactions. Working at Georgetown public hospital has afforded me a wealth of opportunities such as these in my short time here. 

Near the end of a shift one day I saw a patient with chest pain, a thin, uncomfortable-appearing woman in her 50’s. When asked where her pain was she did the classic motion of waving her hand over her entire chest and abdomen, attempting to help me pinpoint where she was hurting. I started with x rays, an ecg and blood tests but unfortunately these would take quite a long time during this busy day. Hoping for faster results, I looked for the ultrasound machine to assist in my work up. After a long search and a battle to keep the battery on, we had it at the bedside. Looking at her heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, and great vessels with the ultrasound machine gave me a wealth of information. I could see she had fluid around her heart and one of her lungs. That provided me a clear start that ended up guiding much of my treatment for her. Although getting the ultrasound, using the machine, interpreting the US (no Radiology to help interpret the scans) were all much more difficult than doing the same would have been in the United States, I can honestly say I learned even more from the process than I would have in my home institution. The difficulty in getting the machine caused me to use it as a precious resource, getting every possible use out of it that I could for that patient. Not having Radiology back up or easily obtainable diagnostic tests caused me to fully scrutinize every image, think outside the box, focus on physical exam clues, and tested my confidence in my own ability to obtain and interpret ultrasound findings. On top of all that, I got to teach a group of residents and nurses aspects and uses of ultrasound that they had never seen before. The experience highlighted learning opportunities I take for granted working in the United States and helped me develop my own diagnostic abilities.     

Andrew Pfeffer Pic 2

by Andrew Neil Pfeffer, MD
Vanderbilt University: Department of Emergency Medicine
Georgetown, Guyana

Whenever I’ve heard people reflect about their international medical experiences (especially amongst my colleagues who have worked here in Guyana), there tends to be a few common themes that emerge. There are statements about the gratitude of the local population, and their resilience in the face of adversity in nearly every aspect of their lives. They discuss the lack of resources available; how the hospitals/clinics can lack the most basic of amenities (gloves, bandages, water…), or how few and far between medical practitioners are located. Universally, people say the experiences have changed them at their core; they now have a greater appreciation for the resources/opportunities available back in the US, and will continue to work to improve the plight of those less fortunate. 

Looking back upon my experiences here in Guyana, my colleagues could not have been more right. Despite significant influence from 1st world nations, life in Guyana is hard and often unforgiving. Conditions that seem routine back home can often prove fatal down here, and both the medical providers and patients are well aware of this fact. This doesn’t stop either of them, however, from fighting as hard as they can, and utilizing their resources as fully as possible. I feel blessed to have had many opportunities to help care for patients here, and the experience has without question pushed me to higher places as both a physician and a person.

Above all else, my time here in Guyana has left me motivated to come back and do more. The potential that exists amongst the medical community, especially in Emergency Medicine, is quite palpable, and there seems to be a feeling that the tipping point can soon be reached. Once that happens, it could ripple through the rest of Guyanese society and hopefully produce successes and advancements that might have once seemed impossible. Of course, it’s not a guarantee, and many obstacles need to be dealt with. However, there is genuine hope, and that’s often the most important first step. 

By Catherine Burger, MD
Vanderbilt University: Department of Emergency Medicine
Georgetown, Guyana

We are taught during medical training to be very cautious and to only proceed with decisions and procedures when we are well prepared. Putting in a breathing tube, for example, when a patient is having difficulty breathing or has lost consciousness, is a procedure that can be done with just a few simple pieces of equipment. But in an attempt to ensure success, we bring in advanced tools for back up, cameras to get a better look down the throat, smaller tubes in case the size we have chosen doesn’t fit. Once we are prepared for anything we are ready. But in many places around the world, including Georgetown Public Hospital in Guyana, those backups are simply not available.

In so many ways the Guyanese healthcare providers have used their limited resources not as an excuse to give up but as an education in how to efficiently and effectively work with what you have. Although the Accident and Emergency Department has less than 20 beds and staffs only a handful of nurses and doctors they are able to see over 70,000 patients a year, what would be a sizable number for any large tertiary care hospital in the United States. Hallways are lined with chairs for patients who are healthy enough to sit up and often patients walk themselves to the lab to have blood work done or x ray for their imaging. While working in the A&E one day I saw a 21 day old baby with a large infected abscess on his arm. The mother brought the child to my chair where I was doing initial evaluations, after seeing the infection we set the baby on a nearby stretcher, cleaned the area and sprayed it with an anesthetic, used a scalpel blade to drain the infection and wrapped the arm back up. We gave the infant some antibiotics and had them go back out into the waiting room until there was a bed available in the Nursery. Neither the staff working with me, nor the mother, was bothered by our inability to get blood cultures, the lack of a crib or incision and drainage kit, or the fact that they had to wait outside the A&E for a bed. Everyone was just glad this was a child we could clearly help, as opposed to the unfortunately numerous cases where the patients are too sick to turn around.

At times I would find myself frustrated by the lack of certain simple but effective drugs, easily available CT scanners or even ventilators. But then a coworker would teach me about how they have found older, cheaper drugs that works, they use x rays instead of CTs, and they ventilate the patients by hand. It’s not ideal but for the most part it works. It’s refreshing to watch the innovative ways resources are used and how nothing is wasted. Even in the sometimes harsh environment of Guyana the people have remained quickly adaptable to their changing world, generous, and extremely thankful, it is a fantastic privilege to work with them.  

by Bill Frist

The Week

America's national debt is ballooning at a worryingly rapid pace. But some programs ought to be spared the chopping block

POSTED ON APRIL 24, 2012, AT 7:10 AM

Government spending is about to get chopped — no matter who wins the next presidential election. President Obama and his GOP challenger Mitt Romney have both prioritized deficit reduction, which, of course, is a worthy goal. However, not all cuts are created equal. And many surveys put global health at the top of the list of things to slash. That's a mistake, and here's why.

1. Global health initiatives save lives abroad?Investments in global health pay off a lot more quickly and dramatically that you might think. PEPFAR, initiated by President George W. Bush and strongly embraced and expanded by Obama, was the largest direct investment any country has made in defeating a single virus (HIV) or disease. Our taxpayers' leadership has provided 7.2 million people with access to lifesaving, anti-retroviral therapy for HIV/AIDS, 8.6 million with treatment for tuberculosis, and more than 260 million — mostly kids — with anti-malarial resources. This U.S.-led historic initiative to prevent and fight disease has directly saved millions of lives, put kids back in school, and helped rescue entire societies from collapse over the past eight years. 

Saving lives and societies leads to better and stronger relationships for trade, enterprise, and foreign investments. It enables economic growth, democracy, accountability, and transparency in these countries. 

2. Global health initiatives protect U.S. families?Deadly microbes know no borders. They are just one plane ride away. HIV did not exist in the U.S. when I was a surgical trainee in 1981. But since then, it has killed more than 600,000 individuals here (and 25 million globally) and infects another 54,000 U.S. citizens each year. It arrived here from Haiti, migrating there from Africa.  

Imagine the devastation avoided if we had identified HIV and our National Institutes of Health had figured out how to treat the virus a decade before it arrived on our shores. Our current global surveillance and engagement system might have done just that.

3. Global health initiatives enhance national security?A hopeful people are a people who shun terrorism. And nothing destroys hope more than a society without a future, hollowed out by diseases that decimate middle-aged civil servants, police, doctors, and teachers. A bleak and nonproductive future for an individual sets the stage for societal discontent and chaos.

Our investments in public health reverse these tragedies, and fuel the smart power of health diplomacy. Kaiser Family Foundation surveys have repeatedly revealed that more than half the public thinks U.S. spending on health in developing countries is helpful for U.S. diplomacy (59 percent) and for improving America's image in the countries receiving aid (56 percent).

4. Global health initiatives are a bargain?Treating HIV costs a tenth of what it did a decade ago, and the costs continue to plummet. Globally, of the 8 million children under 5 years old who will die this year, half could be treated and cured with a low-cost intervention. Pneumonia, the number one killer of young children in the world, is easily treated for less than a dollar! And the No. 2 killer, diarrhea, can be prevented by increasing access to clean water. The price? For $20, we can provide clean water to a family for 20 years. For $14, we can fully vaccinate a child. 

5. Global health initiatives are simply the right thing to do?I was born in Nashville by the luck of the draw. It could just as well have been South Africa, where life expectancy is only 49 years. We are all the same. Lifting others up no matter where they live is part of what makes us American. It's what we do. Americans overwhelmingly say the U.S. should spend money on improving health for people in developing countries "because it's the right thing to do." Nearly half (46 percent) say this is the most important reason for the U.S. to invest in global health.

Yes, out of control entitlement spending and a deep recession have put everything on the chopping block. But let's be smart about where we cut and where we don't.

Dr. William H. Frist is a nationally acclaimed heart transplant surgeon, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader, the chairman of Hope Through Healing Hands and Tennessee SCORE, professor of surgery, and author of six books. Learn more about his work at

Andrew Pfeffer Pic 1

by Andrew Neil Pfeffer, MD
Vanderbilt University: Department of Emergency Medicine
Georgetown, Guyana 

Prior to my arrival, I had the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time with one of the Guyanese EM residents as they visited Vanderbilt. In one of our various discussions, he brought up a fact that surprised me; the majority of Guyanese in the world do not reside in Guyana. Instead, they are scattered throughout North America, namely New York and Toronto. In his family for instance, only 10-20% remained in the nation, with the rest living in one of New York’s five boroughs. When I asked him if he would eventual join them in the US, he said no. His colleagues, however, had a much different approach.

After being here, I can understand why that sentiment exists. Guyana is a nation in flux. On one hand, it is quite modern; many people has cell phones, internet is widely available (I was in the middle of the rainforest and had WIFI), and the dissemination of information can occur rapidly and quickly (via Facebook, or other methods). Many of the excesses of our time are at the fingertips of a large portion of the population, especially in Georgetown. Unfortunately, it seems luxury has outpaced necessity, with the end-result being a palpable level of frustration. This is quite evident in the sphere of healthcare. The physicians here harbor much of the same knowledge and skills that we possess and they know what interventions are needed to treat the most complicated of medical or trauma patients. However, they have very limited resources in terms of pharmaceuticals, imaging, and surgical support to adequately treat the conditions they see. I’ve only been here a few days and I have often felt handcuffed, I couldn’t imagine how hard it is on the local staff to feel constrained to that degree all the time. When faced with the options of either staying home and going through the growing pains (which may take decades and is by no means guaranteed), or moving to a place (the US or Canada) that has already arrived and that boasts a seemingly thriving ‘local’ Guyanese community, the decision to stay can seem illogical. This is probably why many young, educated folks, especially doctors, leave, which in turn, only serves to delay progression further. It’s a detrimental dynamic. 

He says he’ll stay. Being a part of the construction of not just the specialty of Emergency Medicine, but of his nation, is something he cannot leave. It’s a brave stance to take, and I genuinely think the new residency program in Emergency Medicine will help him avoid succumbing to the temptation to leave. For me, I am honored to be able to help support this institution, even though it’s in a very minor way.

In the end, while it’s a baby step, it’s still a step, and they will eventually add up. 

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