OkaZHI: Okanagan-Zambia Health Initiative

Searching for Susu – part 2

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Aug 12

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by Bill Nelem
April 2008

The search for Susu has become a quintessential part of this trip to Africa for me. In part, the journey has become personal, in part, metaphorical, as you will soon discover.

Being charged by Rosemary to find Susu, I imagine myself embracing him and presenting him with a new bicycle. I imagine his surprise and excitement that Rosemary, who hasn’t seen him for 32 years, still cares enough to make this gift happen. In my mind, I see him mounting his bike, male dog style, and riding off in typical African fashion – head high, spine straight, arms outstretched, swerving to avoid potholes as he went.

But, like so many hopes and aspirations in Africa these days, this meeting was not to happen.

Susu is believed to be dead. As they say in Zambia, he’s late.

Hearing this news from John Jellis, I am surprised by the sudden sense of sadness that overwhelms me. I find myself grieving intensely for a man I’ve never met.

As metaphor, the news of Susu’s presumed death triggers my grieving for all of Africa.

Why should 70% of all of the world’s HIV/AIDS cases be born by Africans?

Why should sub-Saharan Africa suffer a 4-fold increase in the incidence of Tuberculosis in the last 8 years?

Why should hundreds of thousands of African children die each year to quench the collective thirst of the malaria-carrying anopheles mosquitoes?

Being partitioned by avaricious colonizing nations a century ago, without thought or care for pre-existing indigenous sensitivities, why does Africa suffer such post-colonial conflict and torment when finally given self-government?

Truly, ‘The Shackled Continent’ as Robert Guest writes in a book by that name. Read it.

Susu was about 50 years old when Rosemary’s father sold the remaining part of their farm in 1976. Six years ago, at the age of about 75, in failing health, Susu returned to his village to die, accompanied by his wife and by Alison, their son. John has not had direct confirmation of Susu’s death, but he can’t imagine him still alive given his poor condition when he returned home so many years ago. John does not know the whereabouts of Susu’s village. The trail ends.

We can only hope that his wife and son are happy and well.

I return a second tine to Rosemary’s childhood farm to visit John and Jane Jellis, on this occasion with Linda Hawker, Family Physician, Gary O’Connor, Orthopaedic Surgeon and Kim Lefevre, Neurosurgeon, all of Kelowna.

Hillary Robinson, now retired British Orthopaedic Surgeon is still visiting there working with John.

As John drives us about his farm in his new Land Rover, his life story unfolds in reverse chronology.

We stop at an artificial dam that he created many years ago to trap the seasonal rains and to enhance the bird life. Picnicking and fishing are John’s daughter and son, their respective families and some friends.

They celebrate the birthday of one of John’s grandchildren. He revels at the ‘Hello Grandpa’ greeting.

His daughter manages the 50 or so horses on the property that sustain Zambia’s only polo ground. His son, a man for all seasons, manages the cattle farming operation.

John’s love for the native habitat and ornithology is clearly apparent.

We cross through a fence, entering Rosemary’s original homestead farm.

The Land Rover swings onto a well-maintained airstrip. A brand new hangar houses a gleaming late model Cessna 206. The Beechcraft is away for it’s annual inspection.

Supported by the Dutch Government, John operates ‘Flyspec’, an initiative he began in 1982. Along with Zambia’s only Plastic Surgeon and his present and past Orthopaedic trainees, John flies regularly to a dozen or more rural hospitals to consult and operate on patients scattered all over rural Zambia.

In 2007 alone, they flew 67 missions, seeing nearly 3000 patients in consultation, performing about 900 operations. We learn that Zambia’s rural hospitals were built in earlier times when they anticipated adequate professional staffing. Now desperately short of physicians and nurses, the countries medical system struggles to cope. 80% of graduating physicians and 60% of nurses leave the country for better pay and lifestyle elsewhere.

John has the only sustainable rural health programme in Zambia.

The cost to the Ministry of Health and the patients for this model service?

Nothing, apart from providing access to otherwise unused surgical theatres, idle for want of surgeons to use them. He flies in all of his surgical hardware as well as the disposables such as dressings and sutures.

Having completed his Orthopaedic training in 1972, John immigrated from Britain with his wife Jane, becoming the first Chair in Orthopaedic Surgery the year Zambia started their medical school.

Now 72 years old, and working full time in his ‘retirement’ he can look back on a truly remarkable career. Like Chifumbe, he is another of Zambia’s iconic medical characters.

Within the context of his specialty, John has found a way to solve many of Zambia’s health care challenges.

Early on in his career, he saw the need to provide a source of added income to retain physicians. With Italian aid, he established the

Zambian Italian Orthopaedic Hospital that allows some private practices whilst providing free care for all children in need.

Also in his early years, he founded an Orthopaedic trust that he uses to offset patient and equipment costs.

During his career, he has trained several Orthopaedic Surgeons. His is the only specialty never to have a graduate leave the country. Zambia must have the only Orthopaedic training programme in the world that requires pilot training as a pre-requisite for entry!

His strategies for education, training, retention and rural health are widely recognised and respected. The only problem is that no one else seems to have his skills and his passion.

We were amused to hear that during one of his rural fly in clinics, he had to break his Orthopaedic list to perform a Caesarean section when no one could be found to do it. We expect nothing less from Gary when he returns to Kelowna!

In my disappointing search for Susu, quite serendipitously, I stumbled onto the gemstone of John Jellis.

Susu is looking down and smiling. As an expert at riding bikes, he thanks you Rosemary for your love and your concern.

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