Surgical team brings new hope to injured women in Africa

From left to right: Shantelle Williamson, Janine Oliver, MD, Christopher Tarnay, MD, Sheila Dejbakhsh, MD, and Sergio Castaneda.
From left to right: Shantelle Williamson, Janine Oliver, MD, Christopher Tarnay, MD, Sheila Dejbakhsh, MD, and Sergio Castaneda.

A revolving team of UCLA surgical experts is providing critical medical care to hundreds of women in Africa who suffer from incontinence brought on by difficult, prolonged childbirth.

The twice-a-year medical missions are sponsored by Medicine for Humanity, a nonprofit organization founded in 1995 by Leo Lagasse, MD, professor emeritus in the obstetrics and gynecology department at the David Geffen School of Medicine. In September, UCLA specialists spent two weeks working alongside doctors and medical students from Mbarara University of Science and Technology in Uganda. During their most recent trip, they performed 64 obstetric fistula repairs and 20 cesarean sections.

An obstetric fistula, or opening between the vagina and bladder or rectum, occurs when women experience difficult, days-long labor. Pressure from the baby’s head pushing against the mother’s pelvic bone destroys tissue and causes a hole to form. Often, the babies don’t survive delivery as their grieving mothers are left leaking urine, feces or both.

The World Health Organization estimates that up to 100,000 women in Africa and Asia develop obstetric fistulas every year. Christopher Tarnay, MD, division chief of female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery and chief of staff at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, says the problem is a global health crisis that does not have high public awareness.

“These women are shunned by their husbands, families and communities,” he says. “They struggle to find work and support themselves and their children.” Dr. Tarnay has been taking UCLA surgical teams to Africa since 2009 and serves as president, medical director and lead surgeon for Medicine for Humanity.

Performing surgeries in a developing country is challenging. Due to sporadic power outages, the team would occasionally need to wear headlamps in the operating rooms. “You have to plan carefully before each surgery because supplies and staff are so limited,” says Shantelle Williamson, a nurse at the UCLA Ambulatory Surgery Center in Westwood. Williamson accompanied the team on its lastest trip.

The UCLA group took more than 350 pounds of donated medical supplies and equipment with them. “The experience made me really appreciate the state-of-the-art equipment available at UCLA,” says Williamson.

After undergoing the repair surgery, the women recover at the hospital for two weeks. Medicine for Humanity covers all of their expenses, including transportation to and from the hospital, housing, food and medical care.

“We often hear how isolated and alone these women feel because of their condition. The hospital gives them a safe place to heal and recover both physically and emotionally,” says Dr. Tarnay. “It’s gratifying to see how excited they are to get their lives moving forward again after the surgery.”

Other Medicine for Humanity fall-trip team members from UCLA Health and the school of medicine included Janine Oliver, MD, department of urology fellow in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery; OB/GYN residents Elizabeth Strom, MD, and Sheila Dejbakhsh, MD; surgical technician Sergio Castaneda; and UCLA psychobiology student Pooja Parameshwar. Shelley O’Connor, executive director of Medicine for Humanity, and Asha Randall, DOM, also joined the team.

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