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11.07.2004 General News

Surgeons have cause in Ghana

By Delores Patterson / The Detroit News
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Rochester Hills team offers skills in orthopedics ROCHESTER HILLS — Two to three times a year, Bettye Wright spends a few weeks in Ghana, Africa, providing free care for patients who would not otherwise receive help.

“I love working with others to make them feel better physically and psychologically. And there are so many people in West Africa that need help that I had to do my part and reach out to them. So this is a natural fit for me,” said the physician assistant at Rochester Hills Orthopaedics.

Wright, 64, is a member of a 15-person mission team called Focus, the Foundation of Orthopedics and Complex Spine. They have been dedicated to treating spine deformities and disorders, as well as orthopedic conditions of the hips, knees, feet and ankles for five years.

The Detroit resident became involved with the organization when founder Dr. Oheneba Boachie-Adjei asked Wright in 1998 to join him on a trip to his native Ghana to assist with patients. The renowned surgeon has known Wright for at least 20 years.

During her first trip, Wright visited a few hospitals and was alarmed to see a local doctor performing surgery on a woman without anesthesia or a nurse to assist in the procedure and distribute sufficient pain medication. Those things weren't available.

“I was not at all prepared for the level of poverty that I saw,” the former nurse said. “When I was caring for a patient who asked to go home with me, I knew I had to serve in a long-term capacity. This woman, Mary, had the same name as my mother, who had just died. God was leading me to do this.”

Ghana is a country of about 20 million people. There are only four orthopedic surgeons in the whole country, and the trauma cases are too numerous to count, Wright said. The conditions of the roads are “horrendous,” she said. And many Ghanaians carry heavy items, such as water jugs and groceries on their heads, putting pressure on their spines, Wright said. That leads to back and spinal injuries, with no doctors to tend to the problems. That's where Focus steps in.

Wright assists doctors with surgeries and provides other patient care. All Focus members pay their own expenses to Ghana and take every instrument and medical item they will need during the trip. This ranges from surgical scrubs and soap to wash the patients to antibiotics that are donated from drug companies.

Most procedures would cost U.S. residents upwards of $100,000, Wright said, but Ghanaian patients are not asked to pay for anything done by Focus members. Their only expense is for local hospital blood work and X-rays, but if Ghanaians can't afford the cost, Focus sponsors them.

In Ghana, patients are required to pay for all of their surgical needs up front, including their antibiotics and intravenous tubes. If patients don't come to the hospital with everything they need, they won't get the items from the local hospitals, Wright said.

“There was one woman who needed surgery to fix a curvature in her back, and her mother cried because they didn't have the money for the work done locally. It was heartbreaking. How could we not help them?” she asked.

“When I got back home, I started to see things in a whole new light,” Wright added. “I loved shoes and could justify any reason to buy a new pair for years. After going to Ghana, I can't do it anymore because I can look at a pair of $40 shoes and realize how much more I can do with the money. Now I will wear my shoes until they're worn out.”

In addition to attending to medical needs of people in Ghana, Wright and others also train local physicians and nurses so they can function independently in the future.

Dr. Dale Hoekstra, 59, of West Bloomfield Township, who provides financial support to Focus, said, “I think the work Bettye and the rest are doing is wonderful. She has a big heart.”

His Rochester Hills Orthopaedics medical partner, Dr. Fred Maibauer, 62, of Rochester has been to Ghana six times to perform orthopedic surgery since 2001.

“When Bettye told me of the work she was doing, I had to go because for years I kept saying I should do something to help people who can't do for themselves,” Maibauer said. “We physicians are very fortunate in that we can do things that the average guy can't do. And because of it, I have had a nice life, so this is a way I can give back.”

Focus has evaluated about 500 patients and done more than 200 surgeries. The group opened a clinic in Ghana in May 2004 to evaluate patients and perform physical therapy. Their long-term goal is to build a hospital. Doctors now rent operating rooms at the local teaching hospital in Ghana.

“A hospital would be a dream come true,” Wright said. “And we can make it happen with the support of others. I'm in this for the long haul.”

You can reach Delores Patterson at (248) 647-7225 or [email protected]