Patients have reason to smile

Chrissie with his mother, Rebecca. The 10-year-old was one of 10 children who were operated on during Smile Week at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital. PHOTO: Nettalie Viljoen
Chrissie with his mother, Rebecca. The 10-year-old was one of 10 children who were operated on during Smile Week at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital. PHOTO: Nettalie Viljoen

The daily debate in the office over the aircon’s ideal setting is something most can identify with, unless you are part of a burns and acute care surgery team.

When operating on burn patients, the temperature has to be set at up to 35 ºC.

Dr Gary dos Passos, head of the burns unit at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, explains: “Patients with significant burns are prone to hypothermia. Their body temperature can drop within minutes. And the smaller the body, the more rapid the decline in body heat.”

People’s Post spoke to the surgeon at a media briefing during the launch of Smile Week which ran from 28 to 31 October at the hospital.

The event is a partnership between the Smile Foundation and South African pharmaceutical company, Adcock Ingram, to – in cooperation with the country’s academic hospitals – “put the smile back on children’s faces” with corrective facial reconstructive surgery and treatments.

Starting last Monday, Dos Passos and Dr Saleigh Adams, head of plastic and reconstructive surgery at the hospital, performed life-changing surgery on 10 children. Five of them were burn victims.

South Africa, because of a variety of socio-economic factors, has a high occurrence of serious injuries due to burning.

Theatre time is one of the major challenges at the moment.

Consequently, life-saving procedures are prioritised while secondary surgeries are deferred to long waiting lists.

Dos Passos says initiatives like Smile Week play an invaluable role in alleviating the cost of expensive surgeries that greatly improve the quality of patients’ lives.

The exposure also helps the public understand how big the problem is.

“Advanced burn dressing is expensive. Theatre time is expensive. Burn patients also have to spend a fair amount of time in ICU after surgery. That too is expensive,” says Dos Passos.

Something else few realise is how physically taxing the treatment of burn patients can be.

Besides the high temperature in operating rooms, patients also have to be picked up and moved to access and treat the various parts of the body that suffered burn wounds.

Combine that with the hours spent in surgery (about 15 hours in a good week) plus the psychological strain and it is easy to understand why burn surgeons, especially, are warned to guard against burnout.

Dos Passos is quick to point out, however, that working with burn patients is also incredibly rewarding.

At the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, a child with burns over 40% of his or her body has an 80 to 90% chance of survival, where elsewhere in the country his or her chance is much less.

“When you see patients with injuries that in other parts of the continent would most likely have meant a death sentence, and you can help them heal and go home . . . I can’t describe the positive emotion it generates,” he says.

Chrissie, a 10-year-old boy with severe burns, was one of the patients who received surgery last week.

He sustained burn wounds to 44% of his body including his chest, back, arms and head in 2017 while playing outside in the backyard of his home in Mpumalanga.

Moira Gerszt, the operations director of the Smile Foundation, says the NPO is excited to be playing a key role in Chrissie’s burn recovery.

“We aim to assist as many children in need as possible. Smile Foundation’s partnership with Adcock Ingram dates back to 2010, and thanks to their support, we have been able to make a major difference in the lives of many children. We are also grateful to the doctors and staff at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital for providing the infrastructure, expertise and treatment required for these surgeries,” she says.

Other surgeries performed last week included cleft palate repair for three of the children, including a 10-month-old baby, tissue expansion in the leg and scalp, lip revision, corrective septorhinoplasty, and skin and fat grafts.

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