US doctors shocked at state of Zimbabwe health system

HARARE – An American medical team's plans to help scores of children in Zimbabwe have been hindered by a health system nearly shut down by economic crisis, an organiser said on Thursday.

Health services across Zimbabwe are collapsing along with the rest of the economy. The medical team had hoped to perform reconstructive surgery on 85 children with facial disfigurements. In the end, it was
only able to do 42.

Jennifer Trubenbach, executive director of Operation of Hope, a Longview, Washington, medical charity, first set up operations in the sprawling, 1 200-bed public Harare Central Hospital. The charity, on
its fourth visit to Zimbabwe, also works in Asia, China and Latin America.

Because it is an emergency centre, Harare Central has been spared daily water and power failures. But conditions had deteriorated sharply since the group’s last visit, in April, Trubenbach said.

Remnants of the staff were doing their best to keep the buildings clean. Most wards were empty, the reception areas deserted. Window panes were broken; anthills of earth grew through a cracked floor, and sparrows flew along the corridors, darting into offices and a nurses station.

"I have never seen anything like this," Trubenbach said.

Trubenbach’s group brought some specialised supplies, but had to search for medication from private pharmacies across Harare.

Zimbabweans face chronic shortages of food, drugs, fuel, spare parts, most basic goods and local currency.

The doctors later moved to a private hospital because it more resources, such as drugs and equipment.

Five Operation of Hope surgeons on the two-week visit scheduled 85 free operations for children brought in by parents from across the nation. They began examining patients a week ago and were performing surgeries on Monday.

Phylis Gwari (33) brought her infant son Jason, suffering from a mouth and throat deformity, from Zvishavane, 360km south of Harare. The trek took them nearly two days — the first four hours on foot through the sweltering bush to the nearest bus stop.

After surgery, the child will be able to swallow and speak normally.

"I am so happy," Gwari said.

In the United States, the operation would have cost at least $35 000.

But Trubenbach said on Thursday the move to the private facility had interrupted the surgery schedules and meant the doctors were only able to perform 42 operations. The group will leave Zimbabwe on Friday.

Trubenbach said the line of children and parents waiting for operations had been overwhelming. Those turned away will be given priority on the surgeons’ next visit, in about six months.

When Operation of Hope packs up to go home, the local nurses and support staff it brought in to help will disperse, too. In a country with the world’s highest inflation, a nurse’s monthly salary is scarcely enough to buy a loaf of bread.

"We’ll be back," Trubenbach said. "It’s sad, but we have found that Zimbabweans have a kind of inner strength about them." – Sapa-AP