Changing Lives With Facing Africa: A Channel 5 Documentary

Recently I had the unusual experience of being in a TV documentary. It concerned my time in Ethiopia working for the Charity Facing Africa. On these missions, I am part of a specialised and skilled team of surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses. We treat severe facial deformities caused by the disease Noma and other strange conditions we do not see in the UK. It is a fantastic opportunity to help patients who would otherwise die or live miserable isolated lives because of their deformities, in one of the poorest countries in the World. The two-part Chanel 5 documentary allowed the viewer to take a brief glimpse of health problems in a developing country. I think that any film that allows us to reflect upon our own comparative values must be a good thing.

Recently the complexity of surgery we have been carrying out for Facing Africa missions has grown. This has occurred partly as a result of improving resources provided by the charity but also advances in technique, skill and confidence. Also, the scouts who scour the remote areas of Ethiopia have been so brave and intrepid to find these patients on the edge of life. Chanel 5 wanted to make a film, not only concerning the surgery but also about the impact the serious disease has on the patients and their families in Ethiopia. Last May, we carried out our work in the presence of a TV production team with all their complex cameras, sound booms, interlaced with their cables and support equipment. There is an old adage that one can be trained or get used to anything. The Chanel 5 production team were very professional and gradually I realised that they were training us to ignore them. At first one cannot help being self-conscious. Stumbling, mumbled words, looking the wrong way, rigid stiff posture. In lighter moments we would play to the camera with phrases such as “cut”, “action” and “with more feeling”. While I am sure that the TV team had seen this all before we found it highly entertaining. However, by the time the blood was really flowing profusely during some of the difficult and dangerous surgery carried out, we were all oblivious to the filming.

When I eventually saw the two documentaries, I was amazed how much of the filming they must have edited. All the members of the surgical team were asked about various aspects of the surgery and our thoughts on our roles and upon the technical aspects of treatment. I think this was good for both the medics and the viewers because it allowed us to crystallise how we truly felt and why we were doing all this so far from home. It also demonstrated the importance of a supportive and cohesive team. No, one person can possibly manage these difficult problems alone.

I was also quite amused how tired we looked at some of the footage. Addis Ababa is a capital at high altitude. We never sleep well because of this and even in the heart of the city, the bark of dogs and hyenas challenge our sleep. Of course, the noise from the nightclub next door to the hotel did not help! The documentaries captured our spirit well but the filming of the patients especially that of Hulu and Zinash was moving and brilliant. These incredibly brave women had huge tumours of the jaw that, unless treated, would have eventually killed them. The films showed us their families in their own homes, which is something I never see when I work in Ethiopia. The social implications and the tragedy of deformity were well captured on film and I believe that the enormity of looking different is the same right here on our own doorstep. I am very pleased to inform all of you that both Zinash and Hulu are doing very well. They have both reintegrated back into their different worlds.

Was it all worthwhile to lives save and change two lives in a massive sea of poverty? The documentaries ended on very positive notes, which makes me feel the answer must be yes. Of course, the real solution to most of the diseases seen in the documentaries is the abolition of poverty. The final questions must be, when will this happen and how?