Sterilising surgical instruments, suturing, making incisions… these are the “the simplest skills that we need to be able to perform a clean and safe surgery,” says Dr Romeo Haoudou, a surgeon from Benin.

These skills may be simple – but they potentially mean the difference between life and death. Unsafe surgical care can cause extreme harm, with avoidable complications accounting for close to seven million serious health issues every year. The risk of care-associated infections is as much as 20 times higher in low- and middle-income countries, according to the World Health Organization.

Basic, low-resource tools and training can prevent many of these issues from occurring in the first place.

During an Essential Skills Course this year, 29 participants in Dakar, Senegal, built a strong foundation for safe surgical practice. At the same time, several participants learned how to pass on their skills to others.

The Essential Surgical Skills course, co-led by Dr. Haoudou, took place on the Global Mercy® during its very first stint as a floating training center.

Dr. Haoudou is a previous graduate of the course himself, having first learned from Dr. Odry Agbessi, his co-facilitator. Dr. Agbessi made history in 2015 as the first reconstructive plastic surgeon in their home country of Benin, after she received training from Mercy Ships.

Years later, both surgeons returned to Mercy Ships together to impart their expertise to the next generation.

Learning and Relearning

Every day, while the Global Mercy was docked in Senegal, local healthcare professionals commuted from their homes to the classrooms on board. Courses like Essential Surgical Skills built upon the techniques they’d first learned in medical school. Over the course of four weeks, more than 300 participants came on board for one of the 8 courses offered.

While each participant discovered new and vital skills, they weren’t the only ones growing from the experience. For those at the helm of the classroom, teaching brought new ways of thinking to light.

“Even being an instructor, I still continue learning,” shared Dr Agbessi. Since completing her training with Mercy Ships more than five years ago, she has become a regular face on board – both in the operating room and the classroom. Whether she is delivering transformative surgical care to plastic reconstructive patients or sharing her knowledge with other medical professionals, Dr. Agbessi is always looking for ways to further develop her own skills.

“The thing I love with the model that Mercy Ships designed is that they train, and they also train people to become trainers. So that even once the ship leaves, we can keep on training and making a more lasting impact. I had the opportunity to be trained on Essential Surgical Skills and Essential Pain Management, and I was able to share this knowledge with my colleagues back home, so that even those who didn’t have the opportunity to come on board can still access the same training.”

After realizing her dream to become the country’s first reconstructive plastic surgeon, Dr. Agbessi’s primary focus has been on operating in a teaching hospital in Benin.

“Being a trainer is a feeling that I’m giving back what I have been given, but it’s also a way for me to improve myself,” said Dr. Agbessi. “The moment I know, I have to teach others.”

She regularly partners with Mercy Ships to lead medical training courses while also running her own non-governmental organization in Benin, VIA-ME. Recently, in recognition of the impact she is making not only in her home country but in Africa, Dr. Agbessi was honored with a Senegalese-based 2021 Leadership Award.

Practice Makes Perfect

The Global Mercy is the organization’s newest and largest hospital ship. It was purpose-built to provide surgical care and medical training to partners in Africa. Essential Surgical Skills was the first course to use the new vessel’s Operating Room Simulation Lab, which will soon be outfitted with the donation of Nursing Anne from Laerdal Medical.

“Anne is a simulator that blinks her eyes, and you can speak through with a microphone, and she’s controlled by a handheld device,” explained Kelly Santy, the Medical Simulation Center Manager. “It’s as realistic as we can make it because the mannequin will respond as if it were a real patient.”

Tools like this allow participants to experience a lifelike suturing simulation with the support of a safe environment and teachers. The result? Surgeons who are better equipped – and more confident – to deliver safe surgical care in their own hospitals.

“What we have taught to them, we give them the opportunity to practice it in a simulation, so it’s not on a patient, but it’s the same area and the same feeling they’ll have if they have the real patient to operate on,” said Dr. Agbessi.

The course graduates have since returned to their hospitals, donned their scrubs, and started putting these essential surgical skills into practice. But this is not the end of the journey.

Mercy Ships is partnering with Africa to support greater access to safe and affordable surgery in the next decade.

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