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Local surgeon shares his skills in Ghana

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By John Barnhart

Dr. John Kerr, a general surgeon at Bedford Memorial Hospital, frequently puts his medical specialty to work on short-term mission trips.

Kerr, a member of Thaxton Baptist Church, has made 10 trips to Ghana in the last 15 years to do surgery at a hospital in a rural area. The hospital is run under the auspices of the Southern Baptist Convention and Dr. Kerr fills in to give the regular surgeon a break.

The Republic of Ghana is the widest of three long, narrow countries wedged into West Africa's southern coast between C?d'Ivoire and Nigeria. A former British colony, it became independent in 1957. English serves as the official language of the government of a country of 250 languages.

Although we often think of exotic wild animals in Africa, Kerr said that he hasn't seen any during any of his trips there.

"They've eaten them all," he commented.

"So much we see there is infectious in nature," he commented.

Most of the locals are Muslims, but the sort of Islam they practice isn't extreme.

"They worship the sun, moon and stars and Mohammed gets in too," he said.

Dr. Kerr said that the vast majority of the people in the area the hospital serves don't have a good concept of germ theory. They get drinking water from the same river that is also used for laundry and as a toilet. They neither boil the water nor filter it before drinking it. As a result, the hospital sees a lot of problems that people here don't get, like typhoid.

In typhoid cases, Kerr's specialty came in when a patient's case had advanced to the point that his small intestine had become perforated. The bacteria had eaten little holes in the patient's intestine and Kerr performed the surgery to close the holes. If not for the hospital, these patients would have died.

Dr. Kerr frequently spends three weeks when he goes, and puts in 18 hour days in the operating room when he is there. On his most recent trip, last year, he performed 70 surgeries during the two weeks he was there. The long hours have a consolation ? the operating room is the only place that has air conditioning. Air conditioning is a great benefit in a climate where temperatures reach 110 degrees. It's a dry heat, however, Dr. Kerr notes.

Having electricity for air conditioning, or lights, for that matter, is not guaranteed. The OR has windows so that the surgeon has enough light to see what he's doing if the lights go out during surgery.

Along with a generally non-existent concept of sanitation, the people's overall health makes them vulnerable. Dr. Kerr said that, from a nutritional standpoint, they are right on the edge. Getting sick can easily push them over that edge.

In addition to long hours, Dr. Kerr faces other challenges when he goes there. He treated one woman who gave birth in the bush and then walked three days to get to the hospital. This presented Dr. Kerr with a problem that he had only seen in medical books, which had only dedicated a paragraph to it. Fortunately, there was an OB/GYN there for him to consult with, but he has often had to make decisions without anyone else's opinion.

Dr. Kerr provides his services, at his own expense, through the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board. This makes it possible for him to go wherever his skills are needed.

He said that he does this to fulfill a promise that he made to himself when he finished his hospital residency.

"You can share the love of Christ with these folks there," Dr. Kerr said.