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Doylestown Hospital Surgeon Changing Lives in Africa

Tuesday, Dec 31, 2013

These are young African women the same age as his daughter. And they're in dire need of help. "This just pulled at my heartstrings," says Doylestown Hospital urologist Albert Ruenes, Jr., MD. "They are so desperate for help, like I've never seen."

The plight affects more than 2 million women in Africa who suffer from vaginal fistula after laboring to give birth. Most of these women have no access to gynecologic care during the labor and delivery process. Often the baby does not survive, and the obstructed labor results in a fistula (hole) between the bladder and vagina that causes incontinence, or uncontrolled leaking of urine or feces. Women with fistulas are often rejected by their husbands and shunned by their village.

"They are outcasts in their society," Dr. Ruenes says.

Dr. Ruenes has been to Tanzania and Ethiopia to train local surgeons in fistula repair. Many of the women are in their teens and are otherwise healthy. Taking care of this problem can change their lives.

"This is a life-restoring surgery," says Dr. Ruenes."And it can take as little as 30 minutes."

Fistula repair is a more recent expansion of Dr. Ruenes' nearly decade-long work in Africa. In 2004, he began travelling to Senegal in West Africa to teach African surgeons how to surgically treat prostate cancer, since they do not have access to chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Dr. Ruenes founded the nonprofit ASSISTS (American-Senegal Surgical Initiative, Surgeons Teaching Surgeons) along with Dr. Seringe Gueye who works at a hospital in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.

Returning each year, Dr. Ruenes has trained the surgeons to perform radical perineal prostatectomy, a minimally invasive, cost-effective procedure that helps maintain potency and urinary control. That is particularly significant for Muslim men, who feel they must be "clean" in order to attend service in a mosque. Islam is the predominant religion in the country. Dr. Ruenes' surgical students are now able to perform the procedure on their own.

More recently, Dr. Ruenes has been working with the Minnesota-based nonprofit volunteer organization, Children's Surgery International, to produce a teaching video on fistula repair for African surgeons. Friend and New Hope-based photographer Bob Krist donated his time to help with the initial filming, and has photographed some of Dr. Ruenes' trips.

Dr. Ruenes plans to continue his annual visits to West Africa. The goal of ASSISTS is to create a Center of Surgical Excellence to teach doctors to be able to treat these urologic and gynecologic conditions in their own communities. "This is important to me," says Dr. Ruenes. "As fortunate as I am to live and work in this community, to serve the people of this area, I realize there are people in other parts of the world who are just in desperate need of urological care. If I can help -- individual patients, and by teaching – I am extending the reach of what I do as a surgeon. It is incredibly rewarding. It's unbelievable."

About Doylestown Health

Doylestown Health is a comprehensive healthcare system of inpatient, outpatient and wellness education services connected to meet the health needs of all members of the  local and regional community. Doylestown Hospital, the flagship to Doylestown Health has 232 beds and a Medical Staff of more than 435 physicians in over 50 specialties. An independent nonprofit health system, Doylestown Health is dedicated to providing innovative, patient-centered care for all ages.

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