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Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Sean Dowdy Shares His Experiences At Panzi Hospital, DRC


For one week in November, five medical professionals from the esteemed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN volunteered their time and resources to travel to Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where they worked closely with Dr. Mukwege at the Panzi Hospital. While there, the team offered exams, performed surgeries, provided necessary medical supplies and equipment, and gave educational lectures. Dr. Sean Dowdy, who practices gynecological oncology and obstetrics & gynecology at the Mayo Clinic, shared his experiences repairing the fistulas and other severe repercussions of the extreme violence being committed against the women and girls of the DRC:

Our first day at Panzi Hospital began at 6:45 during a brief, but heavy rain. Dr. Mukwege popped the clutch as we rolled down a hill to get the car started. The center of Bukavu includes a half-mile of paved road while the remainder of the 30-minute trip covered jarring muddy roads punctuated with enormous potholes. The weather cleared as we approached Panzi and as unbelievable as it sounds we saw a rainbow over lake Bukavu. I was quite impressed with the campus, a series of one-story buildings with well-kept landscaping and covered, stone walkways rather than mud. The hospital is clean with excellent ventilation and a near absence of odors despite the number of severely ill patients housed there. Most meaningful to me was the large outdoor space with thatched huts for the women with fistulas to gather with their children during the day, many of the patients with fistulas children themselves. The area is a walkout immediately outside and below the operating room. We spent the next 5 days in that operating room repairing fistulas, and I would frequently turn towards the windows and watch as the 50 or 60 women living there sang, cooked, collected water, played with their children, and waited patiently for their wounds to be repaired.

That first day at Panzi I examined a young women who had been subjected to unimaginable violations. I understand now the many reasons others who have visited DRC have avoided describing the details of what is happening to these women. For one, there are simply too many of them. Any description very quickly becomes a simple catalog of events like so many impersonal data points. And what has happened to them should not be allowed to overshadow all that they are and all that these young women and girls have the potential to become. Perhaps most importantly, having actually met these women, examined their wounds, and seen the blank eyes of those treated the worst, even then it has been difficult for me to process this and actually believe that these things are happening in the 21st century. How then to convey this to an audience that will never meet these women in person? There is a fine line between creating awareness and risking sensationalism that may not be believed, however true. And to not believe what is happening in DRC as I write this adds just another injustice to Bukavu.

And so on the return trip that first day at Panzi I reminded Dr. Mukwege of this particular woman, and told him how badly I wanted to help her. He admitted that when he sees cases like this he wonders why he is still in Bukavu. The first time he saw wounds such as this was in 2000, and he is still seeing them with regularity 10 years later. Dr. Mukwege and I did not know each other well, but we nonetheless shared the unspoken answer – how could he turn his back on these women? And I felt the same myself. Five days later it was time to go home, yet I was already planning for my return.

Each day began with an outdoor gathering of the patients and hospital staff for a brief sermon. I am not a religious person by any stretch, but I was nevertheless moved by these gatherings and the realization that their spiritual beliefs, their hardships, their work at Panzi, the ongoing war, and the poverty are all indistinguishable from one another, all wrapped up into the daily lives of the Congolese. On one of my more cynical days I might wonder how they could keep their faith in the face of everything they experience. But my reaction was one of admiration, even jealousy for their unending spirit, their fierceness, their ability to look ahead and continue on. I was amazed by what the physicians and nurses of Panzi are capable of despite the lack of resources. Even I was able to adapt, performing complex surgeries with foreign instruments amidst frequent brownouts. But at Panzi they overcome these obstacles on a daily basis, not just for a short week of their lives. There is no running water at the hospital, yet the patients and the facilities are clean. The roads are terrible, yet the employees are impeccably dressed, on time, and friendly without exception. And I began to imagine what they could achieve with running water, consistent electricity, the correct suture, improved instruments, improved anesthesia, or modern imaging like CT scans. I examined a 43 year old with inoperable cervical cancer. She could be cured if radiation and chemotherapy were available. With help we may not only heal the physical wounds, but also return souls to those blank eyes, souls capable of contributing to their families, their communities, indeed the world.