Kids Operating Room strives to provide all children in the poorest countries access to safe surgery and a right to the life-saving care all children deserve.
Garreth and Nicola Wood, Charity Co-Founders and clients talk to Bruce Stevenson’s Mark Richards about the transformational work KidsOR does in Africa and South America.
Kids Operating Room has a simple vision – a world where every child has equal access to safe surgery. Sadly, that’s far from the case at the moment. In fact, 10 out of every 11 children in the world can’t access safe and affordable surgery if they need it.
As a result, children across low- and middle-income countries are dying from easily treatable conditions such as a ruptured appendix or they are left disabled because of something as simple as a broken leg. In these countries, there are not nearly enough surgeons or anaesthetists trained to care for children and there are very few biomedical engineers that can fix broken equipment.
KidsOR’s mission is to support local doctors by providing training and infrastructure to make sure they can use their talents to care for their nation’s children. We create dedicated, specialist facilities for children’s surgery across Africa and Latin America, and we make these spaces child-friendly to provide distraction and reassurance during what is a scary time for any child. We also provide the right kit for operating on often tiny babies and we support the existing local teams to deliver safe surgery for their nation’s children.
We have teams in Edinburgh, Dundee and Nairobi covering everything from global operations and shipping to fundraising and finance. We work with data collectors across our partner countries too, so that we can continually monitor, collate and understand the impact of our work. So far, we have provided lifesaving or life-changing care for around 30,000 children, and we’re only just getting started.
At the heart of our strategy is a steadfast belief that local doctors should care for their own nation’s children. That is surely the only sustainable solution. How we decide our policy and how we proportion future investment is all focused on achieving this. We want to be told we are no longer needed.
We have both been involved in several of the project installations, learning about how each item of equipment plays its own role in providing life-saving care during an operation.
It’s really important – and so rewarding – for both of us to see the impact KidsOR has on local communities and meet with the staff and families. Nicola is also taking a lead on our work in Latin America, which has already had a big impact on the care available to thousands of children.
But more than this, I feel we have an important job to do advocating for improved care for these children. They have no voice and no vote, so they’re often forgotten about. We refuse to sit back and let that happen.
I spend a lot of time with Ministers of Health, speaking up for these children. For example, earlier this year we secured an agreement from every country in East Africa to include children’s surgery in their plans – this is a small but significant step towards giving every child the chance at life they deserve.
Our work is primarily focused on Africa and Latin America at the moment. We have completed projects in countries from Uganda to Peru. In total, we have either opened projects in, or are developing projects, in more than 40 countries.
We focus our work on public hospitals, wherever possible because our research tells us that investing in public health services of countries is most likely to help bring care to the poorest children, build sustainable solutions and help overcome many of the barriers to care that exist in these countries.
Kids Operating Room is going to radically overhaul access to surgery for children across Africa by the end of 2030. More children die of surgically treatable conditions than of HIV, Malaria and TB combined – so this has never been more urgently needed. We are working to create 120 centres of excellence across Africa, each with world-class, state-of-the-art operating rooms.
However, there’s no point in having a shiny new operating room with no one to work in it and that’s why we are focusing on training paediatric surgeons and anaesthesia providers, too. Some of the challenges preventing access to surgical care for children include lack of transport, poor hospital infrastructure and limited surgical supplies.
Affordability of care is a big challenge too, and we are working in all of these areas to understand and break down barriers. However, by far our biggest challenge is to make sure there are enough surgeons, anaesthetists, specialists and support staff to make our operating rooms sustainable.
Eleven African countries currently do not have a single paediatric surgeon. That is why we are providing education grants to these countries and have invested in the first Pan-African collaborative e-learning platform to help support the training for more surgeons. This is the first ever online training programme for children’s surgery that focuses entirely on low-resource settings.
We believe strongly in giving the existing local teams the skills and tools they need to care for their own nation’s children. If flying a doctor from the UK to Africa was going to work, it would have worked by now. It’s time to respect the incredible local doctors and support them to do their jobs.
Absolutely – there has never been more demand for what we do. We have had to adapt the way we work but through our office in Nairobi, we have continued to plan and deliver projects.
In fact, we are busier now than we have ever been. On average, three new operating rooms are opening every month across Africa in 2021. That is a huge logistical challenge normally, with Covid-19 it is an even more interesting process.
However, we have also expanded what we do, donating over 20,000 items of specialist PPE so far this year to colleagues in Africa - something that simply wasn’t needed a year ago. And in the UK we responded to a call for help by creating 10 intensive care beds within NHS Scotland – all of which have been used to help treat the sickest of Covid-19 patients over the last nine months.
The pandemic is having a lasting impact well beyond those who get sick from Covid-19 though. Unfortunately, the simple truth is that across the world’s poorest countries even more children are denied the care they urgently need thanks to the pandemic.
We are scaling up our response, but we know there will always be more needed. Spreading this message, showing what a high impact investment children’s surgery is, and bringing about real change for the world’s poorest children will most likely dominate the rest of my working life. However, I can’t think of a more worthy or urgently needed cause to spend those years working for.
For more information on KidsOR’s work, visit their website at www.kidsor.org