St. Francis Hospital trying to help improve health care in Zimbabwe

Both St. Francis Hospital in Columbus and Mater Dei Hospital in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, were opened by Franciscan nuns in the 1950s, and both are now led by community trustees. Both have teams of dedicated medical personnel working to provide the best possible health care to their community.

That is where the similarities end.

A shortage of equipment and well-trained doctors and nurses has put Mater Dei in dire straits.

St. Francis is reaching out to help improve health care in this land more than 8,300 miles away.

It was last year that St. Francis announced that as part of its 2012-2015 strategic plan it was forming a sister hospital relationship with Mater Dei, a 186-bed, private, nonprofit, faith-based hospital.

The goal is to develop a cultural, relational and world-view exchange between the two hospitals.

Recently, medical personnel representing St. Francis traveled to Zimbabwe to start building that relationship.

Eye surgeon Steve Beaty is the son of missionaries and spent part of his childhood in the African country. He later practiced medicine there for a time and still goes back to conduct clinics.

It was his idea that St. Francis get involved.

"I know the great need there," Beaty said. "The St. Francis board gave unanimous support."

Beaty returned last week from a trip to Zimbabwe.

Previously, he and his wife, Jane, a physical therapist, were among a team from St. Francis that traveled to Mater Dei, leaving Columbus on May 24 and returning June 9.

Also on that trip, paid for by those making the journey, were surgeon Luther "Butch" Wolff and his wife, Karen, who is a nurse; surgeon Lee McCluskey and his wife, Suzanne, who is a nurse; medical student George Jarrell Jr. and Karen Johnson, the coordinator of the sister hospital program.

Johnson said Zimbabwe used to be a very wealthy country, but the economy crashed in the last few years.

"Much of the best medical personnel left because they could not make a living," Beaty explained.

Because of that, there is a lack of medical expertise at Mater Dei and other hospitals in the area that serve about 4 million people.

"In America, even the poor have access to good health care but not there," Wolff said.

There is a great need for medical supplies such as blood pressure cuffs, digital blood pressure machines, stethoscopes and surgery instruments. St. Francis will help provide those.

This partnership also is about physician education, helping physicians and nurses to develop a certain skill set.

"It is no use sending a pediatric incubator if medical personnel does not know how to use it," Beaty said.

He said the training that St. Francis personnel can provide will have a "trickle-down effect" as doctors and nurses there share what they have been taught.

Computers supplied will enable St. Francis and Mater Dei to conduct live video feeds. Laptops have already been taken from here to Zimbabwe.

Teams from St. Francis will visit about three times a year. They will be there to teach and not perform surgeries, McCluskey said.

On their May trip to Zimbabwe, Beaty and others conducted an eye camp giving exams and providing reading glasses. Classes were conducted with physicians and nurses. A city-wide trauma course was held.

The surgeons all used the word "unique" to describe the partnership with Mater Dei.

"We hope other American hospitals will form a similar partnership with hospitals in other countries," McCluskey said.

"We have a real chance to change the health care system there," Beaty said.

Wolff is no stranger to Africa.

He has been on photographic safaris and has climbed Mount Kilamanjaro. He said all who made the trip to Zimbabwe volunteered to do so.

"The infrastructure there has just been destroyed." Wolff said.

He said he walked in the hospital and it was like going back into the 1950s.

"The technology is woefully behind," Wolff said. "They have very little with which to work. Doctors and nurses use outdated items that we wouldn't."

McCluskey added that medical personnel at Mater Dei "don't waste anything."

Wolff was stunned by the poverty of the area and said people die because they can't pay for health care. The government does not help.

Though Mater Dei has been struggling to the keep its doors open since 2008, it provides medical care to an orphanage, the Sandra Jones Centre, free of charge.

Part of the mission Wolff, Beaty and McCluskey went on was to prioritize what is needed there the most.

McCluskey said all of the medical people in Zimbabwe were very grateful to the St. Francis people.

He said the goal is not to do surgeries but to teach, which will reap greater benefits than just helping a few patients over the course of a week. McCluskey, who has been on medical missions to Africa in the past, said the personnel from St. Francis are in Zimbabwe to "build relationships."

He does not feel the partnership will be a huge financial investment for St. Francis.

The goal is to make Mater Dei a center of excellence.