FOR his eighth year, a surgeon from Tathra will return to Africa where he has been changing lives, one at a time.
Since 2007, AJ Collins has volunteered his expertise on the hospitalised Mercy Ships in Africa, where over three to four weeks he performs around 50-60 thyroid operations.
In this way he has worked in Liberia, Guinea, Benin, Togo, Congo and Sierra Leone so far, and on this trip will go to Madagascar.
It is both challenging and daunting work, which has its fair share of heart-wrenching moments.
“You don’t go to these countries thinking you can change or rescue them,” Dr Collins said.
“You go there thinking you can change one life at a time.
“The countries have nothing – when you look at one of them you can be overcome by this sense of hopelessness, like you can’t help them.
“Many of the countries are still affected by civil wars - for instance in Liberia all the telegraph poles are riddled with bullets.
“When you go there and see the extent of their problems, that they can’t get help in their own country, you think if you can change the life of just one person, then it is all worth it,” Dr Collins said.
The clients he sees are usually very thankful, and while there is the language barrier “their smiles are the thing that makes it worthwhile”.
“[But] there’s plenty that you can’t help,” he said.
“The first day we turn up, we see a lot of people Mercy Ships have screened first.
“I see a lot of people quickly in a day or two, and have to exclude some as they have progressed beyond treatable.
“That’s heart-wrenchingly difficult.
“For one or two people, we have to say ‘sorry, but I can’t help you’, and for them suddenly everything is thrown into confusion.
“They think it’s unfair, that someone else is getting treatment but they aren’t, so there are these difficult discussions which are happening through an interpreter most of the time.
“All we can say is ‘unfortunately, your case is different’,” Dr Collins said.
His desire to volunteer in Africa started when he went to the continent’s eastern countries as a medical student.
“That captured my heart a bit,” he said.
“I worked in Tanzania, Kenya and a few other places and found they were so resource limited that it was hard to do anything there at times.”
For example, when he was in Tanzania as a medical student he turned up at a hospital where the manager greeted him and thanked him for coming – then asked what it was Dr Collins did.
In 2005 he saw an ad for a surgeon on Mercy Ships, applied, and 18 months later was asked by the organisation if he did thyroid surgery – which fortunately is one of the operations in which he specialises.
“Africans have a particular propensity for thyroid problems,” Dr Collins said.
Mercy Ships provides a sophisticated set of equipment, which he said is what is required for his operations.
Although Dr Collins will mostly be working, he will get to see a bit of Madagascar on the side and will play some soccer games – as the ship has a soccer team who play against local African teams.
Dr Collins will leave for the Africa Mercy on February 13 and once there will spend time with the Forrest family of Tathra, who are also volunteering on the ship.
WELL-KNOWN Bega Valley surgeon AJ Collins has recently been appointed an associate professor.
On January 1 he became an associate professor of surgery at the Australian National University, meaning his teaching responsibilities will increase over time.
Mr Collins said ANU has had a medical campus in the Bega Valley for the past 11 years.
“I was lucky enough to be involved with them from the beginning,” he said.
He has been a senior lecturer at the campus since 2004, where students come to for their third year of studies.
The campus has become busier over the years, as while at the start there were only two students now there are six.
“The fact that they spend a year here means it will be easier for them to return,” Mr Collins said.
“If you educate students in regional areas, the rate of them returning to those areas is much higher.”