Only on 5: Minn. Docs on High-Tech Humanitarian Mission to Africa

Updated: 02/14/2013 4:28 PM By: Chris Egert

As Minnesotans, we have access to some of the best medical care in the United States, but in the developing world, people don't get the same opportunity.  So when a group of locally based doctors saw a need -- they decided to come up with a way to help.

We went along with the doctors on a high-tech humanitarian mission to Tanzania, Africa to help women suffering from a heartbreaking childbirth complication called obstetric fistula.

The mission started in a remote African village in the country, hundreds of miles away from the nearest city or doctor.

It is a place untouched by time.

The patient’s name is Elizabeth Tobiko. 

The Maasai men in Elizabeth's tribe watch their livestock -- while the women take care of other tasks.  One of the most important jobs Elizabeth has is having children -- which she cannot do anymore, because of a childbirth complication she's suffering from called obstetric fistula.

The condition happens when the baby can't pass through the birth canal, and it gets stuck there for several days to a week.  The baby doesn't survive - and the woman is left with a bladder that leaks.  They immediately become social outcasts.

Elizabeth said, “In our society, people are pointing their fingers at me."

In the United States and most advanced countries in the world, obstetric fistula doesn't happen anymore.  Doctors would perform a c-section to get the baby out.  However, in places like Africa and Asia, women don't have access to medical care.

For Elizabeth to get to a doctor she has to ride several kilometers down a dusty road on a motorcycle.  They also encounter numerous “roadblocks” in rural Africa, like herds of cows, or donkeys.

Eventually Elizabeth hops a taxi bus with her husband, and heads for a hospital in Arusha -- a 5 to 6 hour drive -- depending on how many people they pick up on the way.  There, that she can get a *free* surgery to fix her obstetric fistula, at Selian Lutheran Hospital.

But few women know help is available -- most are embarrassed to admit they can't hold their bladder.

Elizabeth confided, “The problem of being wet is making me feel ashamed. Even in front of my kids, because when I stand up, my bed is wet, and when I walk, I am wet."

Enter Priyanka Gupta -- Peter Melchert and their Minnesota based group called Medical Simulation International.  Dr. Melchert has been using *personal time for over a decade to travel abroad to help treat patients, and help train the local doctors.

"We are always asked, can you please bring someone to help us with the problem of obstetric fistula,” Melchert said.  He continued, “And I remember the first time I heard that -- I didn't know what obstetrical fistula was. What is that?  Why didn't I learn about that in medical school?”

It’s not uncommon for doctors to come to the developing world and volunteer their time to help. 

But the fact of the matter is; they can only do so much while they are here.  It is estimated that between 50,000 to 100,000 women develop fistula every year.

That's what makes Dr. Melchert and his team different.

They aren't here in Africa to perform surgery -- but to shoot video.

It is part of an interactive computer simulation program they are developing that will help train more African doctors to do the fistula surgery.

Dr. Melchert says the program integrate recordings of live video of surgical procedures into a software platform that will be interactive just like a video game.

He elaborated, “So there are flight simulators, which work on a simple home computer, that can train pilots to fly -- or to fly better -- or to fly more safely.  So our project is similar to a flight simulator, which the program requires directional input from the player.  So we are just training physicians, not pilots."

Dr. Andrew Browning heads up the fistula program at Selian Lutheran Hospital.  He’s one of the foremost fistula surgeons in the world, and has dedicated his life to it.  But he’s one of only a few.

We asked Dr. Browning how many other doctors there are in Africa performing the procedure.  He said, “There's about 10."

10 doctors on the entire continent of Africa devoted to full-time fistula repair.

Now you see why this high-tech humanitarian mission could have such a huge impact.    

Dr. Melchert went on to say, “There's just not enough people who know how to do it.  To take care of the work that is out there.  Really, we are just scratching the surface.  What’s desperately needed is more training, more physicians, and the ability to do that training faster.”

These Minnesotans appear to be on the way to creating something pretty special.  

Dr. Priyanka Gupta described why she wanted to get involved, “I didn't just want to be somebody who came in for a week, fixed a few fistulas, and left.   That's great to do, but I wanted to do something that could be more lasting, and really help people.”

She continued, “You know the old adage, teach a man to fish, and you feed a village.  This is the same idea."

To learn more or donate to Dr. Melchert’s mission, click here: