Today’s Training, Tomorrow’s Solutions: Operation Smile Surgical Training Rotations in Rwanda

Rwanda faces dire challenges when it comes to the number and skill of its health care professionals: Only two reconstructive plastic surgeons and 18 anesthesiologists serve the country of nearly 12 million people.

Operation Smile volunteer surgeon educator Dr. Steve Naum of the United States, left, teaches Rwandan general surgery residents during a surgery at the April 2019 surgical training rotation in Rwinkwavu, Rwanda. (Operation Smile photo: Zute Lightfoot.)

And the need extends far beyond Operation Smile’s core focus on cleft conditions: In Rwanda, much of the surgical demand results from trauma and burn wounds. The lack of adequately trained surgeons forces some patients to wait for years before they’re able to receive treatment, which worsens their conditions and further burdens the health system.

However, Operation Smile is helping to alleviate this needless suffering by empowering local health care workers with training and education.

Starting in 2015, Operation Smile has partnered with the University of Rwanda, Partners In Health and the Rwandan Ministry of Health to host twice-annual surgical training rotations. Now the organization’s primary focus in the country, the rotations became formalized after a series of international medical missions conducted from 2010 through 2015.

Stryker’s PhotoBlade in use during a surgery at the April 2019 surgical training rotation in Rwinkwavu, Rwanda. (Operation Smile photo: Zute Lightfoot.)

With the support of Stryker, a medical technology company that has donated over $2 million in cash and gifts-in-kind to Operation Smile, more than 60 Rwandan general surgery and anesthesia residents have received hands-on training and education through the rotations.

“We both have a shared vision of making health care better, and we’re doing it together,” said Stryker Communications Associate Jessica Finaldi, who helped raise critically needed funds to support the rotations through the Stryker Smiles employee giving campaign.

“It is about educating future surgeons across the world to be safe and effective, and our products are directly being used in these surgeries. It’s just so important that we’re out here supporting this program.”

Rwinkwavi District Hospital is the site of Operation Smile’s twice-annual surgical training rotations hosted in collaboration with the University of Rwanda and the Rwandan Ministry of Health. (Operation Smile photo: Zute Lightfoot.)

Jessica attended the April 2019 rotation, where surgeon educators and residents utilized Stryker’s innovative PhotonBlade, which combines thermally cool, high-quality illumination with advanced energy that makes minimal-access surgery more accessible than ever..

Dr. Faustin Ntirenganya, head of the surgery department at the University of Rwanda and one of the country’s two plastic surgeons, said: “Don’t fish for us, teach us how to fish — I like that approach. I used to be involved in cleft surgeries and missions with people coming from abroad. The old way of doing business was to come, operate and go. Then I heard Operation Smile was looking at something more sustainable, which meant coming to train residents.”

Operation Smile volunteer surgeon educator Dr. Steve Naum of the United States, left, instructis Rwandan general surgery residents at the April 2019 surgical training rotation in Rwinkwavu, Rwanda. (Operation Smile photo: Zute Lightfoot.)

Dr. Steve Naum, an Operation Smile volunteer surgeon who’s helped spearhead the development of the rotations, said: “We have witnessed some of the graduated residents going out into the district hospitals and continuing to do reconstructive procedures for wounds and burn patients. This is evidence that their experience with Dr. Faustin and with us has given them the training, confidence and interest to continue practicing reconstructive procedures as general surgeons in the community.”

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