Saturday, February 27, 2016

Now Accepting New Patients

I did my first surgery yesterday!

In the morning we went to church across the street from the hospital again, and then headed over for another full day of operating.  The very first case of the day for Dr. Ekbom and Dr. Wilson was a lipoma removal and they suggested I scrub in with them to observe and possibly help hold some instruments.  A lipoma is a benign tumor of fatty tissue, and the removal is a relatively easy and quick procedure.  Now, I've observed in the OR multiple times before, but have never once scrubbed in.  This was my very first time.  Dr. Ekbom took me over to the sinks, taught me how to wash, scrub, and rinse my arms and hands, and then he and Dr. Wilson taught me how to put on the gown and gloves.  The lipoma was on the woman's thigh, so we draped the sterile clothes over her legs, leaving a small opening where the lipoma was.  I was ready to observe! (Now keep in mind that health system laws and regulations are SO different here than in the U.S.) 

Never did I imagine I would actually perform surgery.  Real life surgery. On an actual human being. 

First thing I know, Dr. Wilson is handing me the scalpel.  Using his finger, he points and says, "So just make an insicion from this end of the lipoma to the other end of the lipoma."  Excuse me?? 

Quick glimpse into my mind:
"I think I'm hallucinating."
"Do they know I've never even held a scalpel before?"
"Wow, I'm so sweaty." 
"I'm glad this woman (who is awake for the procedure) doesn't speak English and doesn't know I've never done this before."
"Is this even legal?"

Well, friends, under the magnificent tutelage of Dr. Wilson and Dr. Ekbom, it happened.  I had Dr. Wilson make the first incision and I followed with the second incision.  As if I wasn't already nervous and excited enough, Dr. Ekbom then handed me the cautery, which is a tool that gently burns the tissue as it cuts in order to help minimize bleeding.  I cauterized away with help from the doctors, and before I knew it, the entire 10cm lipoma was removed.  What an experience, and one I will remember for the rest of my life!  Not many people can say they performed their first surgery at 20 years old in the Congo.  Huge shout out to Dr. Wilson and Dr. Ekbom for the remarkable guidance, teaching, and faith in me.  

After my maiden voyage as a surgeon, I went into the room my dad operates in.  There was a young girl in there, I think about 15 or 16 years old.  I remember this girl from the day in the clinic.  She came in with burns to her hands and lower arms, face, and head.  She is missing a large amount of hair on the top of her head where she was burned from (what I can remember) scalding water. Every day after that I saw her outside the hospital.  I think she was supposed to have her surgery the day before, but we didn't get to her.  I hadn't had any physical contact with this girl since the day in clinic, but every time she saw me, and every time I saw her waiting outside of the hospital, our faces lit up with smiles for each other. I started looking for her every time I walked outside of the OR building, and every time our eyes met we shared an excited smile and wave.  Anyways, when I saw her in the OR, and the nurse trying to get an IV in her, I could tell she was in pain.  I was walking out of the room, and heard her start to cry because of the pain.  I walked back into the room, took her other hand, and held it as she cried and as the nurse tried multiple times to get the IV in, putting it in, and taking it out.  I know too well that it can be miserable having someone dig around in your hand and arm trying to get an IV in, and it broke my heart to see her in so much pain.  I held and rubbed her hand, and wiped her tears.  I don't know if it made a difference to her, but I know if that was me, and I was young and alone,  I would have wanted someone to do the same for me.  

After she was asleep, she was prepped for surgery, and my dad began working on her right hand and arm.  The skin was very tight and damaged from the burn, and she didn't have great range of motion in her wrist.  My dad cut out a thin, long portion of the burn from the top, middle part of her hand, to roughly half way up her lower arm.  My dad was hoping to do a technique called a Z-plasty to close the opening, but the surrounding skin was too tight to bring together, so he skin grafted her arm using a section of skin from her groin.  At the end, a splint was made to keep her hand bent downward to help stretch the muscle that had become so tight.  I'm hoping we'll be able to see how she is doing on Monday, assuming that she isn't discharged before then. 

Today has been a day of much needed rest.  There is a Seventh Day Adventist church right outside Maji's gate, and I woke up this morning to glorious singing.  It was a beautiful morning.  Many of us spent time reading or doing devotions, and just sitting and talking.  At 1pm we drove down the road a little ways to Kivu Lodge, a beautiful resort, and had lunch there.  The dining areas look out over Lake Kivu and the gardens couldn't be more beautiful.  They're full of trees, bushes, and flowers of every color. We ate a delicious meal and talked, as Adele's newest album, 25, played in the background.  Am I really in Africa?


Back here at Maji there have been multiple wedding parties coming and going all day today. There are hardly any public accesses to the lake here, so on Saturdays Jo opens Maji for free for wedding parties to come take pictures.  There is one public beach kind of nearby, but nowhere near as nice as Maji.

The weather here has been warm, but very rainy.  I guess it isn't called the rainy season for nothing.  Almost everyday it has stormed, but the storms usually only last for a few minutes.  It's stormed twice so far today, once this morning and once while we were at lunch.  It downpours and thunders like crazy, but usually only lasts for about ten or fifteen minutes.  When it's not raining, it's usually overcast. We haven't seen a lot of the sun.  There was a beautiful sunset one night, so I'm hoping the sun will make a few more appearances before we leave.  We still have a week, so I still have hope for that!

One of the best parts of the trip so far has been learning from all the doctors--Congolese and American. The Congolese doctors are incredibly smart and dedicated to their jobs.  Dr. Luc is probably the best surgeon in all of Congo, and he is a fascinating man to watch and listen to.  He always has a smile and is absolutely brilliant.  He takes his job so seriously, with the desire to learn more everyday and provide the best medical care to his people.  Dr. Medard has been working a lot with my dad in the OR and again, has such an intense desire to learn.  He's always eager to ask questions and assistant the doctor he's working with.  Their passion to thrive and their passion for their people are inspiring.  

I also couldn't ask for a greater team of doctors to travel with and learn from.  Already in one week I can tell they will play such an influential part in my future.  I'm so thankful for the role models they have been to me.  Everyday I'm amazed by their performance and knowledge, but also by their love and dedication to God.  Dr. Ekbom is a hoot!  I've never known a better storyteller than him.  His sense of humor and positive view on life is so refreshing and fun.  He's a real breath of fresh air.  Dr. Wilson is also great.  He's so chill in and out of the OR and always willing to help teach me or explain to me what is happening during a procedure.  Dr. Erickson is incredibly knowledgeable about everything, but so kind and encouraging.  His stories of travel, involvement, and God never cease to amaze and inspire me.  My dad as well has always been a role model.  Every time I watch him operate I'm in awe of his precision and abilities.  It's been so fun to be able to be on this trip with him and learn from him as well.   I'm so thankful for and in awe of all the doctors here.  All these guys are serious life goals.  I will always remember the influences they have on me and their willingness to teach me and encourage me.  They've been so fun to be with and I'm so excited to have one more week here to grow and learn from them!


  1. Loved this post Mary Ella~(I've loved ALL of them, but this one is so detailed and insightful, I feel I am there!). You are so blessed to be with these awesome men, and I am certain your presence adds a bit of levity and beauty! Ask Greg to tell you the story about the cows and his job milking them, and ask Marc about Rosie the pig! Can't wait for the next entry...praying for you!

  2. So excited for you Dr. Mella! I love reading your blog - you are a wonderful story teller...what an amazing experience...

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with all of us. You are certainly using your God given talent for a wonderful cause. Blessings to you, your dad and all the other Dr's and staff.

  4. Mary Ella you are just beaming from underneath your surgical mask ! What an incredible experience you have been blessed to be apart of . Thank You for sharing your adventure and gifts with us ......