An OUWB department head recently returned from a mission to Zambia and will return soon – to help the people living there as well as him and the residents he is taking with him.
All of this is part of an annual pilgrimage for Kenneth Peters, MD. He is Professor and Chair of the Department of Urology of the OUWB, Chair of the Department of Urology at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, and he is the Peter and Florine Ministrelli Distinguished Chair in Urology.
For two weeks a year, Peters brings his expertise more than 8,000 miles from home to lead a small group of treating urologists and interns who collectively treat dozens of patients. During the last trip in October, the group performed nearly 60 surgeries.
And while Peters says that this is the only way for most of the people who live there to get high-level care for urological problems, he insists that he gets just as much of it.
“For me it is a good thing for the soul that brings me back to the point why I became a doctor,” he says.
“You just go there and take care of the people … people are so grateful that you are there and put their trust in your hands, you do your best for them and in the end you feel good.”
“When I come back, I always come back a better person,” he adds.
‘Why aren’t you doing anything about it?’
Peters earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and a medical degree from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in 1991.
He has been with Beaumont ever since – first as an assistant doctor in general surgery, then as an assistant doctor in urology, followed by a urology fellowship. Peters was appointed to the Chair of Urology in Beaumont in 2007 and has been with OUWB since its inception.
He has been on a mission in Africa for 13 years.
The origins can be traced back to a television broadcast.
“One day I came home from work and my wife was watching Oprah and crying,” he says. “She told me the show was about vesicovaginal fistulas in women in Africa.”
According to the Fistula Foundation, an obstetric fistula occurs when a mother has been in prolonged, disabled labor but does not have access to emergency medical care such as a cesarean section. The end result is holes known as “fistulas” between the mother’s vagina and her bladder or rectum.
The World Health Organization says women who suffer from this disease experience incontinence, shame, social segregation and health problems.
“They are thrown out of their villages, many just die in the bush … my wife said, ‘Why don’t you do something?'” Says Peters.
Peters secured support for the first trip of his mission through a fund established by Michael Ingber, MD, a former Beaumont resident and urologist now based in New Jersey. Subsequent trips were funded through donations to the Beaumont Foundation from community events, patients, and staff.
Up to 100 patients per day
For the first three years, Peters led a mission to Mozambique. Despite the challenges of language barriers and limited resources, the missions succeeded in helping the local urologists treat urology-related issues.
“During our third year in Mozambique, we were out and about with our residents and were basically robbed by the police,” he says. “They came up to us with AK-47, took all the money we had and said if we didn’t give it to them they would put us in jail. That was the last time we were in Mozambique. “
|Peters and other members of the health team took a moment to pose for a photo outside the Mission Hospital in Zambia.|
Peters became aware of the possibility of making a difference in Africa through a scholarship holder from Zambia who came to Beaumont for a year. That eventually led Peters to come into contact with representatives from the Monze Mission Hospital – a 3.5-hour drive from the Zambian capital, Lusaka.
Peters has led a team at the Mission Hospital for ten years. Trips are usually taken in January, during the cooler season and when his home schedule becomes a little easier. However, in 2021, the team left in October due to postponements due to COVID-19. Peters plans to lead a team again next month.
The work of his team in Zambia has evolved over time.
“We used to do a lot of fistulas, now we do a lot of general urology,” he says.
Peters says he knows what to expect: residents will queue up and his team will treat up to 100 patients a day.
The first ward of each patient is one of two rooms, each occupied by a treating person, a resident and a local nurse who is available for language problems (English is the second language).
“We evaluate all patients … and find out who we can help,” he says. “Anyone we can help will then be hospitalized.”
During their time in Zambia, Peters team members will perform up to 60 surgeries and treat everything to do with urology: kidney stones; Urethral strictures; Prostate-related problems; and fistulas to name a few. The team also oversees post-operative management.
They generally use equipment they’ve previously taken with them and keep them locked up along with about 350 pounds of medical supplies they need. There are no computers and everything is handwritten. The team uses WhatsApp to communicate with each other and with local health workers, sometimes after the mission has returned home.
“Just so rewarding”
Peters says traveling to and from Zambia is an exhausting process. Last time it was almost 48 hours since the team flew out of Lusaka and Peters arrived at his home in Metro Detroit.
Though it takes a lot of him, he says it’s always worth the effort.
“What I’ve really seen is that it has a very positive effect on the residents of (urology) because they can come and see what it’s like elsewhere in the world,” says Peters. “So much is being done now with robots and high-tech devices … there you are like in 1960.”
He says it is beneficial for the residents of his team to see the high level of care that can be provided when there are severe disabilities. He says the point is to continue training residents to use a certain thought process when dealing with patients.
“It’s about knowing what to do or what not to do,” he says.
Brian Odom, MD, resident urologist at Beaumont and OUWB alum (class 2017), set off on the trip in October.
Odom says he wants to get out of his comfort zone and feels empowered by the ability to provide care without the luxuries of a modern U.S. hospital.
“Going to another country and working there is night and day,” he says. “You don’t always have every instrument you need, but you just work through it and find that you can get through almost everything without the usual comfort.”
Odom says the mission also forced him to deal with unexpected variables, such as when the lights occasionally go out during an operation and healthcare workers only had to rely on their headlights before the backup generator was turned on.
He also learned to appreciate the cultural differences, lived at times in an area where he had to sleep under a mosquito net and there was either running water or electricity, but never both at the same time.
He encourages medical students and residents to take the opportunity to serve on such missions when the opportunity arises.
“It can be kind of crazy, but honestly it’s just so rewarding,” he says. “It’s been a life changing experience … and it’s great to be able to make such an impact on a patient’s life. You are so grateful for everything you do. “
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