Return of the Anesthesiologist

How’s that for the next summer blockbuster? Who am I kidding, in film anesthesiologists are akin to wardens: a plot device reserved for wallflowers or villains.

I’m back in Addis on the garden terrace of the Ghion Hotel. From this little government sponsored oasis, combined with jet lag, and a St. George premium lager I could convince myself I’m almost anywhere. Except Ottawa. The polar vortex and snow squalls clearly don’t reach the northern ridge of the Great Rift Valley.

It is exciting to be back at the Black Lion Hospital and Addis Ababa University in the Ethiopian capital.  I’m working again with the Canadian Anesthesiologists’ Society International Foundation or CASIEF for short. It’s not a sexy name like Save the Children or World Vision but this charity does great work. CASIEF is a scrappy little organization built on the vision of benevolent anesthesiologists 50 years ago. The charity’s first date was in Nepal and evolved with a successful courtship in Rwanda built on the dedication of a few very dedicated souls such as Drs. Jeanne, Angela Enright, Franco Carli and Patty Livingston. Today relationships also exist with the  anesthesia programs in Guyana, Burkina Faso and here in Ethiopia.

The CASIEF model is one built on relationships: Education Development would best characterize the mission. The model primarily consists of a visiting professor program from Canadian institutions where teachers travel to assist with clinical teaching in the operating theatre and deliver lectures with a partnership to assist with curriculum and professional development.  Teach a friend to fish type thing but the learning is truly bidirectional. As trust is built the scope spreads across a variety of domains such as leadership, professionalism and research.  The mandate is to collaborate with partners to build capacity for safe, sustainable anesthesia and perioperative care through education, knowledge translation, and advocacy.  Like any engagement there are fits and starts but the long term evolution of growing yesterday’s students into today’s professional leaders is remarkable.

I didn’t forget my laptop this time. On the last visit in 2017, I managed this same trek only to leave the lifeline to all my educational materials in the seat pocket of the commuter flight in Toronto- a teacher without tools.  The residents on the trip, Sophia and Karim, came through with resources and expertise.  Having that pesky final Royal College exam at the end of 13 years of training on the immediate horizon has wide-ranging benefits both at home and abroad.  We provided operating room table-side instruction by day and crammed lessons together by night at the hotel. Often the teaching topics were requested the day before.  Our routine most evenings would consist of huddling in the hotel lobby scouring resources and cobbling to together lessons while making small beer sacrifices to Etherna, the undisputed God of Wi-Fi as she teased us with broken links to pearls of pharmacology and physiology.  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Humanitarian parlance has an old adage, “This isn’t our first rodeo.”  This is my third visit to Addis Ababa. There is something special about returning to a place you have visited before. You never really go back to the same place. Change is inevitable. Development and progress relentlessly march forward.  Roads are paved, buildings fall and get put up, mostly by the Chinese in these parts. There is a growing familiarity but I am not exactly the same person on each subsequent visit.  Traveling as a wide-eyed medical student or first time faculty carry an innocence that fades with each return.  Small quotidian familiarities appear in subtle ways. The warm blast of the first breath of sub-Saharan air on the tarmac, the texture of enjera and kitfo cuisine and the thousand yard stare of a grizzled wanderer to ward off touts comes more naturally with each arrival.

There is a personal cost to being away from family. I’ll be honest, dread creeps into the last day before any overseas work travel now.  It hasn’t always been this way but every trip since we started our little family has an element of regret.  Kids change things.

Humanitarian work, if that is what I am going to call this, is rather incongruent to family life.  The demographics of the volunteers or aid workers are very bi-modal: pre and post children.  The challenges of leaving a family with household kids at any age are a significant barrier. You often have to call in supports from friends and extended family. I am certainly grateful to those in our lives who have helped us get through these strained times.  I just video called home and my 4-year-old son refused to acknowledge me. The two year old was genuinely happy to see me and had the inquisitive instinct to ask again where Ethiopia was. The debts incurred will have to be repaid.

Back into the theatre tomorrow.  All the world’s a stage…


Jason McVicar, February 15 2019