Surgeon's big heart
Instead of putting his feet up in retirement, surgeon Alan Kerr flew into a war zone to operate on the tiny hearts of children.
Dr Kerr has travelled to the Middle East more than 30 times since 2001 with international charity Palestine Children's Relief Fund to perform surgery on kids who would otherwise die of congenital heart conditions.
"I was just about ending my time at Greenlane Hospital, where I had worked fulltime all my life, when I got a call from a British surgeon I knew who was going with an American team to work in the West Bank and Gaza," the Mt Eden resident says.
"That's when I recruited a couple of my friends from New Zealand, an anaesthetist and a couple of intensive care nurses, and we were off at quite short notice."
That week-long trip saw Dr Kerr and his team based in the volatile area as the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York unfolded.
"We were protected by the Palestinians, they knew we were an aid team," he says.
Despite the initial trial by fire Dr Kerr kept returning to the area, taking with him pretty much the same core of people.
Over the years the Kiwi team has saved the lives of more than 700 children.
Kiwi medical staff are unpaid but their travel and accommodation is covered by the relief fund.
Before the charity stepped in, only around 100 children with congenital heart conditions were being operated on each year because of a lack of funding from the Palestinian authorities.
"The real need is more like 400 to 500 a year," Dr Kerr says.
"So without the treatment about half the kids with congenital heart defects were dying by about one year of age."
Early on Dr Kerr and fund boss Stephen Sosebee were convinced by the Palestinian Minister of Health to train local medical staff in pediatric cardiac surgery.
"I could see that their medical services were pretty abysmal and I was keen to do what I could to help," he says.
"So I went back for four months in 2003 and worked in Gaza City. And that was the worst time of the second intifada. There were constant helicopter attacks at night, tanks coming in, houses being demolished and people being targeted for assassination. It was pretty difficult working there."
Eventually it was decided to move the project to a more advanced hospital in east Jerusalem where it was more peaceful.
But it became progressively more difficult to get Palestinian children into Jerusalem and the hospital had developed to the point where it could run autonomously.
Now the Palestine fund focuses its efforts in a rundown section in the south of Gaza Strip.
The Kiwi team works on a roster with other medical teams from around the globe. Dr Kerr went to the new location for the first time in June and is hoping to return for a second time next year.
"It is different in Gaza now, because the Israeli settlements are all out and people are more peaceful and are less interested in politics. They are just surviving."
The experience has been rewarding but Dr Kerr is unsure how long he will keep operating for.
"Im getting a bit too old for it but we are hoping to go back in April and I'm hoping to interest a young surgeon to go and help do the operating."
Visit pcrf.net to find out more about the Palestine Children's Relief Fund.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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