Sincelejo Diaries, part 2


Sincelejo

Tuesday –  We drove back from Cartagena this morning before heading to surgery in the afternoon for a bypass grafting case.  For the first half of the way, I sat in the back and enjoyed looking out the window.  It’s amazing how dry parts of Bolivar are.

The drought has been responsible for the deaths of over 20,000 farm animals here in Colombia.  The small lakes are disappearing, from my first trip to Sincelejo to my most recent visit just a few weeks later.  The trees and bushes besides the roadways are completely coated with layers of dust from passing vehicles.  It gets greener as we pass into Sucre, but it’s a sad reminder of the devastating effects of climate change.

After stopping for breakfast along the way, where we met up with Dr. Melano, Iris went with Dr. Melano and I stayed with Dr. Barbosa.  We talked about music mostly.  At one point, a former patient from several years ago called, just to say hello.  The patient had recently heard that Dr. Barbosa now had a surgery program in Sucre. (The patient had previously traveled to Cartagena from a small town in Sucre for surgery.)

Once we got to Sincelejo, we headed to the hospital to see our patient before surgery and go over any last-minute questions or concerns.

(Of course) I was worried about finding vein but we easily found good quality conduit.  Dr. Salgua has been very nice about helping me with the saphenectomies.  The team teases me because I have a difficult time pronouncing her name.  We have a kind of system: While I finish closing the leg, she moves up the table to assist the surgeon in starting the grafts.  Then when I finish wrapping the leg, I stay at the back of the table with the instrumentadora, learning the Spanish names for all the instruments.  Once the chest is closed, she does a layer of fascia and I close the skin incision.

It’s a little crowded sometimes with the new instrumentadora learning the essentials of cardiac surgery, but the atmosphere at the back of the table is a lot different from the climate at the top.  (Dr. B is always calm, pleasant and entertaining – but Dr. Salgua is almost completely silent the whole time).  I am a lot quieter than my “out of OR self” when I am across the table from the surgeon too..

Wednesday – Another coronary case, on a fragile-ish patient (multiple co-morbidities including chronic kidney disease etc).  It was a long case and I was a little worried the whole time but the patient did well.  (I always worry about the frail patients).

I did okay too – performing a saphenectomy with Dr. Barbosa.  The patient had a vein stripping procedure previously (on one leg only) so I wanted to be sure to get a good segment of vein on the remaining vein.  I think Dr. Barbosa was worried about the quality of the conduit (because he kind of hovered – and didn’t relax until we started harvesting it.)

skip harvesting

Skip harvesting

I wish I would have more opportunities to perform a traditional saphenectomy (one very long incision).  I assisted on one several years ago – and I think if I had a chance to do a couple more, I would feel more comfortable skip harvesting.  Of course, a headlamp would also help.  (It’s kind of dark looking down the skip ‘tunnels’).  Then once I’ve mastered skip harvesting, I think it’s just another small jump to endo-harvesting with a scope.  I know a lot of people never bother learn to skip harvest, but I feel more comfortable building on the principles of open procedures first.  I might need them in an emergency case which is kind of why I wished I had more open saphenectomy experience.

Thursday – Saw three patients in the clinic today.  However, on reviewing the patient records and an intra-office echocardiogram, one of the patients definitely doesn’t need surgery at this point. (Asymptomatic with only moderate valvular disease).  We were happy to let him know he didn’t need surgery even if that means fewer cases.

Two surgeries today.  The first case was a bypass case for a patient with severe coronary disease and unstable angina.  Dr. Salgua and I did the harvest.  I think Dr. Barbosa is a little nervous about handing over the reins to me for harvest because he keeps a pretty close eye on me while I am doing it.  But then again, it might be because I am a little overly cautious and hesitant at this point.  If I didn’t have Dr. Salgua to look over my shoulder and encourage me onward, I’d put clips on everything and proceed at a snail’s pace to make sure I do it right.  But since it’s still my first week, maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.

On the other hand, he must think my suturing is pretty good, because he just trusts me to do it correctly.

The second case was a patient from last week, who developed a large (symptomatic) pleural effusion and cardiac effusion (no tamponade or hemodynamic instability) which is a pretty common surgical complication.  The case proceeded well – I placed the chest tube, with Dr. Barbosa supervising.  Dr. Barbosa performed the cardiac window portion of the procedure.

Sadly, one of our patients from last week died today.  It was a fragile patient to begin with, and even though surgery proceeded well, the patient could never tolerate extubation and had to be re-intubated twice after initially doing well.  From there, the patient continued to deteriorate.

Friday

Today we had a beautiful aortic valve surgery.  This has always been one of my favorite cardiac procedures.  Somehow its elegant in the way the new valve slides down the carefully coördinated sutures.  (I don’t have pictures from this case – since I was first assisting – but I will post some from a previous case – so you can see what I mean).

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Dr. Salgua worked an overnight shift, so I was at the top of the table – (and yes, noticeably quieter than normal.)  I was surprised at how fast it seemed to go – but maybe that’s because everything went so smoothly.  Or maybe because we’ve done a lot of coronaries lately, which is a much more tedious and time-consuming process.

Iris and I are working on a patient education process – as a way to improve the continuum of care for patients (particularly after discharge).  I really enjoy working with Iris because I feel like we are always on the same page when it comes to patient care.

While it’s been a tiring week for the crew – I am, as always! exhilarated and happy to be here in Sincelejo.  Just knowing it’s the end of another week (and I am that much closer to going home) has me feeling a little sad.  But I guess I can’t stay forever, and I sure don’t want to take advantage of all the kindnesses that have been extended to me.

That being said:

At the end of every surgery, every day and every week in Sincelejo – I am grateful.  Grateful to Dr. Barbosa for being such a willing and patient teacher – grateful to the operating room crew (especially Iris Castro and Dr. Salgua) and particularly grateful to all the kind and generous patients I have met and helped take care of*.

The medical mission

This week I had another inquiry about ‘medical missions’.   I know people mean well when they ask about medical missions, or when they participate in these types of activities but…

Long time readers know my philosophy on this – don’t go overseas so you can pat yourself on the back over the ‘great deeds’ you performed ‘helping the poor’.  It’s patronizing to the destination country and its inhabitants – and generally not very useful anyway.  An awful lot of volunteers with real skills and talents go to waste on these so-called mission trips when their skills might be better served (in less exciting or glamorous ways) in free clinics in our own country.

But it does give everyone involved a chance to brag about how selfless and noble they have been; traveling thousands of miles, sleeping somewhere without 24/7 wi-fi (and who knows what other hardships).

Instead, change your orientation – and maybe challenge that assumption that everything you’ve learned about medicine, health care and taking care of people is better and superior.  Open your eyes and be willing to learn what others have to teach you instead.

* I always opt for full disclosure and transparency with the patients.  I introduce myself and explain that I am a studying with Dr. Barbosa, what my credentials and experience is to give them the opportunity to ‘opt out’.

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The Road to Sincelejo


colombia_pol_map

The Road to Sincelejo

For me, the road to Sincelejo has been in the making for a long time.  Since meeting Dr. Cristian Barbosa, cardiac surgeon in February 2010, I have wanted to know more about his work.  I first meet Dr. Barbosa on my initial trip to Cartagena de Indias when I (literally) accosted him in a hallway in Hospital Bocagrande.  At that time he was the chief of cardiovascular surgery of the now defunct cardiac surgery program at Hospital Bocagrande.  He was minding his own business, walking down the hallway.  As he passed, I read the title on his lab coat, “Cirguia Cardiovascular.”

Back on 2010, my Spanish was even worse than it is now – just forgotten bits of high school Spanish.  But that didn’t deter me on my mission.  I had entered the hospital under stealth (okay, not really, but I was just a ‘gringa’ wandering around without authorization) to meet and talk to surgeons, so I wasn’t about to let this opportunity pass by.

with Dr. Hector Pulido (left) and Dr. Barbosa in Cartagena (2010) after a chance encounter in a hallway,

with Dr. Hector Pulido (left) and Dr. Barbosa in Cartagena (2010) after a chance encounter in a hallway,

Of course, since my Spanish was limited – I didn’t know how to express all the normal social graces in these sort of situations.   Instead,  I said, “please stop” as it was the first phrase that came to mind.  He did, and we managed to exchange enough conversation for me to explain who I was, and what I would like to know.  Despite my lack of manners, and random appearance, he didn’t seem to mind.   A visiting cardiac surgery nurse, “por supuesto!” (of course!)

I knew I was successful when he then asked, “Do you want to go to the cath lab and review today’s films with me?”  The rest is now history, on the pages of this blog, multiple articles and the Cartagena book.

Sometimes, the language of surgery is universal – which is what makes all of this possible.

in the operating room with Dr. Barbosa in 2010.

in the operating room with Dr. Barbosa in 2010.

Since that first meeting, Dr. Barbosa and I have both improved our language skills (his English, my Spanish) and we’ve kept in contact.  We’ve caught up with each at various conferences and meetings.  Therefore, I was saddened to hear of the closure of the cardiac surgery program at Hospital Bocagrande due to financial difficulties*.

Cardiac Care

I was excited when Dr. Barbosa told me about his new position in Sincelejo (Sucre) a few years ago, providing cardiac surgery services to the local community.  The program called Cardiac Care provides cardiac surgery services to a populace that would otherwise have to travel several hours (to Barranquilla or another large city).

When Dr. Barbosa invited to come join his team in Sincelejo, it took some re-arranging and re-scheduling to do – but it was an opportunity I just couldn’t miss.

The program remains small and relatively unknown even among Sincelejo residents.  For this reason, Dr. Barbosa and his team (cardiac anesthesiologist, Dr. Sebastian Melano and nurse perfusionist, Sra. Iris Castro) all live in Cartagena but maintain another apartment in Sincelejo.  When they have surgery scheduled, they stay in Sincelejo for several days to perform surgery and oversee the patient’s recovery.

Road trip

On Thursday, I took my first trip with the group to Sincelejo to see several patients (post-operative patients and new consultations).

Dr. Barbosa and his cardiac anesthesiologist see patients at the Clinic in Sincelejo

Dr. Barbosa and his cardiac anesthesiologist see patients at the Clinic in Sincelejo

This trip itself was very interesting.  Sucre is a region (state) of Colombia that is entirely new for me.  Even though the trip is just 125 km from Cartagena, it’s a journey into a new landscape of rolling hills (Mountains de Maria) and takes over three hours.

Leaving Cartagena, we pass through the various areas of the city.  We pass through barrio Manga, past several hospitals including Hospital San Juan de Dios, and toll stops.   As we pass through the industrial areas of the city,  the massive oil refinery expansion project dominates the landscape.  Evidence of other ongoing construction and expansion outside city limits is also present.

Like most roads outside cities, we pass through several security checkpoints.

As we leave Bolivar we pass several palm plantations, where palm oil is produced. (Alas, no palm wine – one of my favorites)**.

Like Texas with hills

March is the tail end of the ‘drought season’ of this tropical locale so much of the landscape is brown, and barren appearing (think of Texas, with hills.)  This year has been particularly dry with several wildfires due to the effects of the El Niño weather systems.  This year, they tell me is even worse than previous El Niño years.  A comparison to Texas is appropriate since this part of Sucre is mainly farms with livestock (horses, chickens etc.) and cattle grazing.  For this reason, Sucre is well-known to Colombians for both its beef and the richness of the local cheese.

Along the way, we pass several small settlements of tiny houses along with the fincas (working farms) of the wealthy.  Some of the homes are poured concrete with concrete floors and painted in gay colors, others are hard-packed manure with dirt floors.

one the modest dwellings roadside in Sucre

one the modest dwellings roadside in Sucre

As part of a promise made to improve the infrastructure of Colombia during President Juan Manuel Santos’ famous “five points” most of the roadways are either newly paved or in the process of being paved and expanded.

During the drive, my companions give me the history of the various settlements.

Palenque

One the first settlements we pass while still in the state of Bolivar is the town of Palenque.  Palenque is known for being the first settlement of escaped/ free Africans in Colombia.  (As one of the main ports for the slavery trade, Cartagena – escaping slaves would make their way to small settlements to live as free members of society.)

Palenque is known for adhering to mainly of the African traditions of their ancestors, as female residents wear traditional dress.  Residents speak a distinct dialect of a creole based, Spanish language mix  also called Palenque.

photo courtesty of Proexport Colombia.  Photo by Juan guFo.

photo courtesy of Proexport Colombia. Photo by Juan guFo.

A decade makes a difference – The Red Zone

Just ten years ago, this simple journey would have been venturing into dangerous territory***.  Guerillas and paramilitary groups controlled the area, and terrorized residents and travelers alike.  No where does the history of conflict in Colombia become more real than in the tiny town of Chinulito.  This town was one of the first casualties of paramilitary activity in the area.  Over 300 families had to flee the area for their very lives.  Many more were killed. (For a bit of eye-opening, remember that while we often think of these massacres  as a thing of the past, the violence is ongoing in parts of Colombia, and this incidence occurred in 2000, not 1970).

It wasn’t until 2008, that 56 of these former residents were able to return, under the protective watch of the Colombian military and police.  The military presence is significantly heavier than any of the other areas I’ve been to. 

Soon we enter the town of Sincelejo and head to the office to see patients.

Not a puebla

Despite being considered a somewhat rural area by more cosmopolitan coastal residents of Barranquilla and Cartagena, Sincelejo is no small puebla.  The city, which is the capital of Sucre, has a population exceeding 200,000.  The city has a long history and was initially inhabited by native peoples prior to Spanish exploration, and subsequent “discovered” in the 16th century.  The city was formally founded in 1535 in the name of San Francisco de Asís de Sincelejo.  (We will talk more about the city in future posts since I’ll be spending considerable time here.)

*Cardiac surgery services lines are particularly expensive to maintain in comparison to other hospital services.

** Apparently, I am not alone in my appreciation of this type of wine, which is widely considered among locals as the  Colombian equivalent of “bum wines” like Thunderbird, Ripple, MD 20/20 or other cheap drinks favored by alcoholics.

*** If you are thinking of doing something like venturing solo into the Red Zones, particularly if unaccompanied by Colombians, please read this article, “Backpacking in a red zone.”