Dr. Richard Arjun Kaul
To what degree is your health impacted by the educational resources at your community’s disposal?
As a spinal physician, I work closely with patients during the most difficult times of their lives. The social contract I sign with those I serve dictates that I not only work to remedy their bodies, but that I also provide a level of guidance and support where appropriate for a patient’s overall wellbeing.
It is these combined tenets of my profession that have taken me from speaking with young adults in the juvenile detention centers of Newark through clinics as far off as Sub-Saharan Africa and South Korea, as I try to better understand the nexus between health, education and community.
Throughout these journeys, in so many regions of the world, what’s struck me the most in my time providing specialized health services is that while the underpinnings of detriment and conflict certainly vary in degree, the pillars of therapeutic success are universal.
While no amount or standard of learning could ever thwart, say, a spinal injury, there are important corollaries between one’s health and access to education and a nurturing cultural environment. The path to a wholesome life lies in not only a provision of health care, but the tutelage that comes with it.
One of the most striking examples of the need to marry health care with educational resources to achieve real impact can be found in the city Bukavu of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Bordering Rwanda at the Congo’s eastern border, Bukavu is the capital of the South Kivu province with a population of more than 800,000. Rife with poverty, the area suffers from a lack of health care and educational resources, human conditions that often go hand-in-hand.
Bukavu is also home to the Panzi hospital, an important regional health institution not rare in its continual shortage of resources. During a trip there in 2008 I was shocked by the lack of protocol for spinal injuries, despite having an alarmingly high rate due to dangerous working conditions (mining is among the prevalent industries there) compounded by ongoing strife and conflict.
Besides contributing a technical expertise, I found it even more pertinent to establish training for medical personnel and for building awareness around the importance of hygiene and access to clean water. It is with this perspective that I established the Spine Africa Project, a non-profit organization that works with the Panzi hospital to provide key training and resources that will give the region a stronger opportunity to help itself. Beyond providing medical assistance, Spine Africa does something even more important: it provides an educational resource and a beacon of hope and resilience in a dangerous part of the world.
Whatever caused the many injuries or lifelong ailments of those individuals I assisted, performing surgery or specialized care would only address the most immediate concerns. Of greater long-term importance was putting in place a system allowing the citizens of Bukavu to achieve progress that will set them on a safer, healthier life trajectory.
Spine Africa seeks to do just that. Updating medical equipment and facilities will benefit the entire medical community, not just spinal practices, as will the implementation of proper sterilization and safety methods, improvements for a safe water system, reliable electricity and capable communications systems.
With the improvement of certain resources, tied to medical training, medical professionals who call Bukavu home will be enabled to provide expanded expert care. In the next few years, as we continue to establish a stronger hospital system, outside surgeons, including myself, will continue to visit the area to not only perform spinal surgeries using the latest and most effective technologies, but to also participate in clinics so that others might learn as well.
What’s being done in Bukavu can be replicated in other parts of the world and the Spine Africa project will seek to expand into other cities in Africa. We invite other health and development organizations to join us.
Beyond providing health services alone, improvements in education and community offer even greater opportunity to save lives.
Dr. Richard Arjun Kaul is the president and founder of the Spine Africa Project, a 501(c)(3), and is the medical director of the New Jersey Spinal Rehabilitation Surgical Center in Pompton Lakes, NJ.