Amazing. Sobering. Two words Dr. Charles Mueller used to describe the medical mission trip he took in August to south central Africa.
“It was amazing to see what they were doing at the Zambian hospital with the resources they had at hand,” Mueller explained. “But it was sobering to see the amount of suffering to be treated.”
Mueller and his son, Brendan, a senior at the University of Missouri, joined other medical professionals that are members of the American Burn Society on an eight-day medical outreach at Saint Francis Hospital in Katete, Zambia.
Saint Francis Hospital receives joint administration from Anglican and Catholic dioceses and is primarily staffed by Zambian physicians and ancillary staff. Some trainees, primarily from the United Kingdom, do part of their residency program at the African hospital, and volunteers such as Mueller and the other members of his group also took part in providing medical care when visiting Saint Francis.
“I arrived at the hospital at 1 p.m., rounded at 2 p.m., and was up to my elbows in a stab wound an hour later,” Charles Mueller said, describing the need for surgical care in the Third World country.
Working alongside Mueller in the hospital’s operating room was a volunteer surgeon from England that was nearing the end of his two-year commitment to the mission hospital, a job he took after retiring from a traditional surgical practice in his home country.
The staff physician worked with Mueller and the other volunteer physicians in the hospital.
“He enjoyed having fellow physicians come to his hospital to work,” Mueller said.
The staff physician also took the opportunity to see how things were done by the visiting physicians.
“He is out there all on his own, so he really appreciated the collegiality that we brought into the hospital,” Mueller said. “He wanted to learn new techniques from us, and he wanted to see how we did things.”
How things were done was quite different than what Mueller finds in his own operating rooms in the rural Ozarks hospital where he practices every day.
Mueller found at Saint Francis a fully functioning blood bank without the lab work available to provide the knowledge needed to utilize the blood bank. No CT or MRI machines were available, just X-ray machines. Mueller discovered that his personal camping headlamp provided better lighting than the overhead lights in the Saint Francis operating room.
“The hospital had a $100,000 C-arm in the operating room that had been donated to the hospital, but it broke after three months,” Mueller said, “and nobody knows how to fix it.”
Because there were no anesthetists available to administer and monitor anesthesia for patients, the patients were simply given a shot of anesthetic to knock them out prior to surgery.
“Many times, the patients that we saw made it to the hospital three or four days after an event that would require surgery,” Mueller said, describing the patients as “stoic” and used to dealing with a severe lack of medical care.
“Patients were also very appreciative for the care they and their family members received,” Mueller said.
Mueller was the only general surgeon on his team, and he spent his days taking care of patients in the hospital and performing surgeries.
“Much of the care I did involved creative thinking and problem solving, trying to figure out how to take care of patients with the limited resources available,” Mueller explained. Some Zambian patients spoke English. Hospital staff members provided translation for Mueller and other members of his medical team when needed.
Brendan Mueller, who is interested in a possible career in medicine, spent his time at the hospital following other physicians as they did rounds and saw patients.
Dr. Mueller’s friend from residency, Dr. Nathan Kemalyan, a surgeon that specializes in burns, did education rounds in the hospital as well as surgeries for the many burn patients that arrived at Saint Francis.
Zambia, like many Third World countries, has a high rate of burns due to open flame cooking. Medical assistance for burns is a large need in the country. Kemalyan and the nurses, nutritionists and the occupational therapist that were also part of the team spent time in clinics providing education and other burn-related services to patients.
Most of the medical care provided outside of the hospital is performed by Zambians that have the equivalent training of advance practice nurses in the U.S. The burn team provided education and training for these nurses as well as the other staff members in the hospital, too.
The medical team took some donated supplies and brought some of their own supplies to provide care at Saint Francis. The team also paid a small amount to have housing and meals at the hospital.
“It was all very basic,” Charles Mueller explained, describing simple but clean accommodations and plain but nutritious food.
Mueller’s trip was the second time he participated in medical work in Africa. He grew up in West Africa – Liberia – where his parents served as missionaries. Mueller returned to Africa in 1987 as a medical student and did medical missions work. Kemalyan encouraged Mueller to participate in the mission opportunity at Saint Francis with the burn team, and Mueller began considering the opportunity earlier this year.
“It was very satisfying to be plugged in with a group,” Mueller said, adding that while he was on the trip he also learned a few techniques for taking care of burns with surgical hand tools.
With this medical mission experience behind him, Mueller is considering a medical mission trip to Liberia in April to work with women who have been ostracized from their communities after disfiguring experiences following childbirth.
Earlier in the summer, Mueller re-negotiated his employment contract with Texas County Memorial Hospital, allowing him the opportunity to do medical mission work and continue to work full-time for the hospital.
While on this trip to Africa, the entire team had the opportunity to go on a safari at South Luangwa National Park, an experience that Mueller described as “fabulous.”
“Just imagine overlooking a flood plain where you see four to five species of birds, impalas, warthogs, baboons, the tops of giraffes among the trees, elephants and zebras all together, moving, grazing across the plain,” Mueller said. “It was awe-inspiring to be just a few feet away from elephants and lionesses in the wild.”
Several hundred digital photos later, Mueller summed up his experience with a big smile and a comment, “Yes, I crossed a few things off the bucket list.”
Mueller is a board certified general surgeon. He began his general surgery practice in Houston at The Professional Building in 1997, and he practices today in the TCMH Medical Complex on the hospital’s main campus.
Mueller served as chief of staff at TCMH from 2002 until March 2011. He serves as vice chief of the TCMH medical staff and as the chief of surgery.
Mueller and his wife, Anne-Marie, reside in Houston. They have two grown sons.
Yes, I crossed a few things off the bucket list.”