Canadian woman makes surgery safer for patients in Africa
"Lives are being saved...This is my purpose now."
There's a lot of bad news in the world these days--conflict, terrorism, refugee flight, not to mention worries about natural disasters and the economy.
Sometimes, things can seem so hopeless.
But now and then you hear something that gives hope. That’s what I felt recently when I talked to a young woman from Calgary who is making surgery safer for patients in some of the world’s poorest countries.
Christina Fast, 28, is a sterile process technician and teacher at a college in that Alberta city. In 2011 she volunteered to serve with Mercy Ships, an international faith-based charity that provides medical services to some of the world’s poorest people in the developing world.
At first, she thought her job would only be sterilizing equipment on the ship, which was docked in Sierra Leone. But one day she went ashore to visit a local hospital in Freetown. She was shocked by what she found.
“There were no functioning sterilizers,” she says. “It was probably the worst conditions I could ever imagine. I was in disbelief at what I saw.”
In Canada, medical instruments are routinely sterilized after each use in sophisticated machines called autoclaves. As a result, all patients in this country can expect to leave surgery without picking up an infection—it would take a serious breakdown in procedures for anyone to get sick.
But what Fast saw in the Freetown hospital was things like scalpels, clamps, retractors and other items simply put in a plastic pail of chlorine, rinsed, dried and used on the next patient.
The result? Most people got sick, and many died.
“One doctor I spoke to said that 90 per cent of patients developed infections after surgery,” she says.
Shaken, Fast went back to the ship with a new idea—and a new sense of calling and resolve. God’s plan for her, she decided, was not just to sterilize instruments on the ship, but to help African hospitals learn how to do it, too. And so a non-profit organization called SPECT—Sterile Processing Education Charitable Trust—was born.
With help from a Grand Challenges grant from the Canadian government, and support from her family and friends, Fast is exploring ways to help hospitals in the developing world cheaply, sustainably and effectively sterilize medical instruments.
At first, she wasn’t sure how to do it. Autoclaves are expensive. And even if a hospital in the developing world could afford one—or was given one free—there’s no one qualified to operate them or fix them if they break.
Plus, since electricity in many places in the developing world can be spotty, even if they had trained technicians a power failure would render them useless.
For a while, she was stumped. But then she and a colleague came up with a simple, low-tech idea: Pressure cookers.
After rounds of experimentation, they discovered that ordinary pressure cookers could produce enough heat and steam for a long enough time to sterilize surgical instruments.
“I didn’t think it would work, but it did,” she says of the simple method, which finds instruments suspended in a wire container above the water.
Not only do they work, they are inexpensive, easy to buy in Africa, have no moving parts and don’t require electricity—they can be used on a gas stove or a wood fire.
Now Fast is on a mission to raise enough money to provide pressure cookers to as many hospitals as she can in Africa, and to provide training for people about how to effectively use them.
She finds fundraising to be a daunting task—much harder than actually doing the work she loves in Africa..
“I’m not a good salesperson,” she says. “I tell my stories and let them speak for themselves. If it moves others, I invite them to help.”
Despite the challenges, Fast feels she’s where God wants her to be.
“Lives are being saved,” she says. “This is my purpose now.”
So there’s your good news for today—proof that there are some good things happening in the world. And you can bring hope to others, too, by donating to SPECT so that patients in the developing world, just like patients in Canada, can expect to go home from hospital after surgery in better shape than when they arrived.
This article originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 29, 2015, and is used here with the author's permission.
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