Spine surgeon changing eastern CongoBy DANIEL GOLDBERG | Friday, January 27 2012 at 16:30
Throughout the world, there are hundreds of charities dedicated to aiding different parts of Africa. Some truly help and others hope to solve the problem simply by raising money.
However, not many of those involved in the charity ever visit the area and truly "touch" those they aim to help. Well, Dr Richard Kaul and his Spine Africa Project (www.spineafricaproject.com) take it further than just "touching".
Dr Kaul actually travels multiple times per year to the eastern DRC to operate on those afflicted with debilitating and paralysing spine injuries, taking simply "touching" to actually "curing".
The cell phone or laptop computer that are so essential to our daily functioning may be among the most vicious contributors to the most flagrant abuses of human rights in the world.
Several hundreds of NGOs make an incredible profit from the sale and manufacturing of devices whose components are derived from the mines of the eastern Congo.
While traditionally mining has been a lucrative and respected trade, in the eastern Congo, this could not be more the opposite.
In terms of resources, the Congo is one of the richest countries in the world. Geological estimates indicate about $24 trillion in unmined resources, including gold and the "3 Ts", tin, tantulum and tungsten.
One or more of these "3 Ts" is found in almost all of our electronic devices and are essential to their functions. But have we ever stopped and asked where these minerals come from?
Most of us do not know, nor do we care. However, I am sure if we knew the truth, we would be appalled.
During the civil wars in Rwanda, violence spilled over into the DRC and violent militants created havoc on the once peaceful country.
One of their main targets was those who owned and operated the lucrative mines of the eastern DRC. They threatened the operators with physical violence, death and used extreme sexual violence against women as a form of psychological warfare.
Owners were forced to capitulate to the demands of these militants in fear of their lives and today, the mining industry is a faint and disturbing shadow of what it once was.
The conditions in these mines can only be described as “backbreaking”. Most of the work is usually reserved for men and children over the age of seven. Congruently, children make up 30 per cent of the workforce.
A work day is usually 14-18 hours of tenuous labour in which the miners are tasked to dig trenches, break through walls of sheer rock and carry hundreds of pounds of rocks out of the mines.
The mine owners only grant their employees one short break a day for a meal of little subsistence. All of these tasks are performed without the slightest intimation of the safety protocols we have become so accustomed to in the American mining sector.
In recent years, there have been efforts by the local governments to improve the working conditions, including the implementation of a minimum wage and the curtailing of extreme work hours. However, these are rarely enforced and if they were to be stringently enforced, the level of poverty would only proliferate.
The average daily wage for an adult male working in a mine is less than $2. Most of DRC is still communal families where each member works to earn a wage which is then pooled with all others in the family to provide the basic resources for survival.
If work hour regulations were enforced, this would reduce the mean income of a family, thus decreasing their ability to purchase these basic resources. So, despite the harsh working conditions, most Congolese are forced to object to the very regulations enacted to save their lives. In many instances, a debilitating injury will result in an entire family starving.
This is a result of the economic consequences an injury can impose, the number of family members remains the same, yet the unit is minus one wage. This one wage may be the difference between meagre survival and starvation.
In 2008, Dr Kaul, a successful spine surgeon pioneering innovative techniques in Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery, was enjoying a burgeoning practice in New Jersey.
That year, he attended a speech given by Dr Roger Luhiriri of Panzi Hospital (DRC) regarding the rampant sexual violence against women in eastern Congo.
Shocked and incensed by what he had heard, Dr Kaul immediately contacted friend and Congolese model Noella, to help him make travel arrangements to DRC so that he could use his medical knowledge to aid in a general humanitarian capacity.
A few short weeks later, Dr Kaul arrived in Bukavu. While in Bukavu, he was given the opportunity to tour several local clinics as well as meet with many of the local doctors.
While in the clinics, he noticed that many of the men, women and children were afflicted with spine injuries. When he inquired as to how the local doctors were treating these injuries, the answer changed his life forever, they simply were not treated.
He was informed that the doctors had neither the training nor the resources to treat these injuries. Those injured were discharged and returned to their villages.
Due to the neurological and physical impairments associated with a spine injury, their life expectancy was less than two years. From that very moment, The Spine Africa Project was born.
Foregoing the arduous and time consuming task of recruiting doctors and convincing them to travel to one of the most dangerous parts of the world, Dr Kaul and his co-surgeon John Woods simply decided that they themselves would travel multiple times per year to Panzi Hospital to perform life saving surgeries.
His still proliferating New Jersey practice would be put on hold during these sojourns. Since 2008, they have been making trips to the eastern DRC to carry out these admirable tasks.
The response from the local community, both medical and civilian, has been overwhelming. When news of Dr Kaul's and Woods' imminent arrival travels through the villages, countless families set out on a trek of hundreds of kilometres over several days, all in hopes to have their spine injuries examined. For their next trip, which begins February 3, they have planned over 25 surgeries in a mere 10 days.
This initiative is a tremendous undertaking, both in terms of time and resources. Prior to the last trip, over $20,000 of medical supplies was sent to Panzi Hospital.
The Spine Africa Project has employed several strategies in an effort to garner funds. One of the most important is raising public awareness of the Conflict Mineral Crisis and urging those companies who profit from the exports of the DRC to donate so that we may correct the health issues their quest for profits have caused.
-Daniel Goldberg is Director of Business Development, The Spine Africa Project
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