Africa

Meet 7 African medical heroes who came home to defy death

By Lauren Said-Moorhouse, for CNN

Updated 9:09 AM ET, Thu March 5, 2015
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Godwin Godfrey heart surgeonGodwin Godfrey heart surgeon
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For years now, the "brain drain" debate surrounding young people from African countries going abroad to study or work has raged fiercely. The departure of so many has often raised concerns that the continent will struggle to develop if its sharpest minds relocate overseas. Over 10,000 doctors and medical professionals educated and trained on the continent relocated to the United States in 2011, according to an extensive 2013 report exploring the scale of emigration -- but is this really a bad thing?

These talented medical workers can resettle abroad, acquire new skills before retuning with new specialties to educate local doctors in. Here, CNN's African Voices takes a look at some of Africa's top doctors who have returned home to make a difference.
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Pioneering Ghanaian orthopedic surgeon Oheneba Boachie Adjei is a celebrated physician from the lush rainforest region of Kumasi, 250 kilometers north of Accra. A leading authority on spinal surgery, in 1988 he literally wrote the book on the medical specialty while on a general surgery internship in Manhattan early in his career.

For years, Adjei continued to practice in the U.S., gaining invaluable experience and knowledge in the field of orthopedic care. But the pull of Ghana continued to weigh on him. In 1998, Adjei founded Focos, a Ghana-based foundation of orthopedics and complex spine. And last year, the distinguished medical professional decided to return to his country to run the organization, which in turn had become the backbone infrastructure for The Focos Orthapaedic Hospital in Accra.
Back in Ghana, 65-year-old Adjei was shocked by the spectrum of diseases ranging from severe and dangerous to treat in comparison to the "mild to moderate" conditions he witnessed in New York. He says his goal now is to pass on his expertise to students in his homeland.

"I don't want to be like the only person who can do this," he says." I'd rather have four or five people who can do this. I'd rather say 'we' can do this, not just 'me.' I like 'we' better than 'I.'"

Watch: Why did this leading spine surgeon return home?
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Bosede Afolabi is a Nigerian practitioner who has dedicated most of her medical career to the study of sickle-cell anemia and how the world's most common hereditary blood disorder affects pregnant women. After completing her initial medical degree at Ife's Obafemi Awolowo University, the young doctor relocated to the UK for several years of work experience before returning to her homeland to work with expecting mothers.

The disease for which Afolabi has become a renowned expert plagues Nigeria -- one in four people in Africa's most populous country carry the sickle cell gene. Sickle-cell anemia, which is also referred to as SS disease, is an inherited form of anemia -- a condition in which there aren't enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen throughout the body.
Now an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, Afolabi consults twice a week at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, where she provides her immeasurable expertise to mothers suffering from the condition while continuing her crucial research towards cutting maternal mortality in the country. She is also a managing partner of Paelon Memorial, a multi-specialist hospital in Lagos.

Watch: Nigerian doctor helps pregnant women
Ola Orekunrin's sister was just 12 years old when, while traveling with relatives in Nigeria, she fell ill. Orekunrin's family searched desperately for a medical facility in the region which catered for sickle-cell anemia sufferers but none existed and sadly, the young girl died. This tragic moment ultimately played a pivotal part in redirecting the British-born, Nigerian heritage doctor-in-training towards a new medical path -- air ambulance operations.

In 2010, the budding entrepreneur -- who had a promising career in the UK -- quit her job, sold her assets and returned to her family roots in Lagos founding Flying Doctors Nigeria, the first medical air service in West Africa. She is pictured in the center flanked by two colleagues.
She told CNN in 2013: "From patients with road traffic trauma, to bomb blast injuries to gunshot wounds, we save lives by moving these patients and providing a high level of care en route."
Flying Doctors Nigeria
It was at 30,000 feet that everything changed for Kenyan pediatrician Betty Gikonyo. The young medical professional was relocating to the U.S. with her family and had been asked to escort a young boy suffering from a heart condition en route to a medical facility in America. Mid-way through the journey, the boy took a turn for the worse and Gikonyo had to step in and help alleviate the medical situation while still in the air.

This medical predicament would motivate her to step towards pediatric cardiology, a specialty two decades on she has become an expert in. Working out of the Karen Hospital -- a leading medical facility on the outskirts of Nairobi that she helped found -- the passionate practitioner has made it her mission to mend hearts of children from her home country.

Watch: Surgeon treats kids with ailing hearts
Courtesy Dr. Betty Gikonyo
Meanwhile at Bugando Medical Center in Mwanza, north Tanzania, Godwin Godfrey, who hails from the small town of Moshi, in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, is also fighting to fix the hearts of children. As his country's only qualified pediatric heart surgeon, he is constantly battling inconsistent electricity, lack of equipment and a shortage of trained medics while on his quest to help some of the 300 suffering children, who await surgery at Tanzania's largest teaching hospital.

"Somebody has to do something -- and this is one of the reasons I came back," said Godfrey, who returned to Tanzania after five years work experience in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Watch: Surgery in a blackout
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In a country suffering from the devastating after-effects of a brutal war, Denis Mukwege -- who in 2013 was one of the top contenders for the Nobel Peace Prize -- has become a shining beacon for rape victims. As the medical director of the Panzi Hospital in eastern Congo, the pioneering practitioner has dedicated his life's work to providing a much-needed sanctuary for women abused during conflict.

At the medical facility, victims are treated for the horrendous physical effects of violent rape and abuse as well as emotionally through counseling and psychiatric treatment for post traumatic issues.
Born in 1955, the highly-celebrated doctor studied medicine at home before moving away to France for several years to gain experience and skills before returning to the DRC and beginning his work with women in the country. He previously told CNN: "Work is not only about money... Earning money is not the sum total of life. Life is not about living in abundance, it's about what you can give to somebody else."
Junior D. Kannah/AFP/Getty Images
Kachinga Sichizya is a 52-year-old neurosurgeon from the small mining town of Mulfulira in the copper belt region of Zambia. With an impressive career over two decades, the highly-trained doctor has dedicated his efforts to provide medical services for sick children. After completing his early studies, he began working as a doctor in the country's capital, Lusaka. Sichizya soon found his calling in neurosurgery and began working to become an expert in this field of medicine.

He practiced in Zimbabwe, South Africa and was set to relocated to Australia where he had job interviews waiting. But his ties to his homeland were stronger as he recalled "Zambia needed manpower." Today he can be found doing rounds at Lusaka's Beit CURE hospital, where is one of a handful of neurosurgeons practicing in the region.
"You see the mothers come with this notion that this child, no one can touch it, it's always hidden at home. But here I take every child into my hands and show them love, reassure them that I am going to the best for them."

Watch: The multitasking doctor with a big heart