Ebola stops Havre native's missions to African nation
By KIM BRIGGEMAN Missoulian - December 10, 2014
We hear Sierra Leone these days and think “Ebola.”
Some 1,400 people have died there since the deadly virus swept in last spring, second only to the 3,000 in Liberia to the south.
Dr. Scott Brown had been working on the deplorable medical conditions in Sierra Leone for years before that. The Portland, Ore., anesthesiologist who grew up in Havre made eight trips to the nation on the West African coast with small medical teams since 2008, the last one in February.
But for the Ebola outbreak, Brown would have been en route again at Thanksgiving. Instead he spent it at the Missoula home of his parents, Bob and Florence Brown, for the first time since 2005.
Between his foundation, Surg+Restore, and two others from England and Scotland, Brown said eight to 10 medical teams a year had been traveling to Sierra Leone to provide essential plastic and reconstructive surgery.
“We’ve canceled all our trips,” Brown said. “We’ve sent nobody since May. What these trips do is teach. Our goal is to make (medical care) self-sustainable. But we have to have people to teach, and right now we don’t have any doctors to teach.”
An 11-year civil war that ended in 2002 decimated an already desperately poor Sierra Leone.
“When I first went there in 2008, it was officially the second-poorest country in the world,” Brown said. “It’s a country of 7 million people which has no plastic surgeons, no neurosurgeons, no cardio surgeons, and they’re only graduating about 22 to 24 medical students a year, of which over half of them leave the country. I mean, why would they want to stay?”
Brown, 53, a Carroll College graduate, grew up near Montana’s Hi-Line Indian reservations. He saw the poverty firsthand and traces his passion for helping the poor and underserved populations in the medical profession to that.
In Ojos Feos, the Afro-Latin blues band he formed in Portland a couple of years ago, Brown goes by the stage name Robbie Cree, a nod to the Cree tribe on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation. He plays traditional and nontraditional string and percussion instruments, as well as the keyboard he grew up with — by his parents’ edict — in Havre.
The six-member band is made up primarily of medical professionals and plays original music sung in Spanish and Sierra Leone Krio.
“We write songs about social injustice and human rights, and I witnessed all that growing up in Havre,” said Brown. He’s interested in bringing the music to Montana next year, perhaps at the River City Roots Festival or the Montana Folk Festival.
Brown got involved in international medical work shortly after setting up a private practice in 1997 in Portland, where he’s also medical director of a pain clinic.
He has traveled to 25 countries in South and Central America and Africa, and can converse fluently in Spanish and Krio, the de facto national language of Sierra Leone. While working in Bolivia about 10 years ago, he met a doctor who asked him to go with a group to Ghana and Mali. Brown agreed to do so.
“Their program director was going to start a project in Sierra Leone the next year and I said, ‘Geez, if you go, give me a call,’” Brown said.
After the second trip, he was asked to join the board of directors of ReSurge Africa, a Scottish foundation that provides training in reconstructive and burn surgery to doctors and nurses in West Africa.
That led to a request for Brown to start a branch charity in the U.S. dedicated to training anesthesiologists. The partnership has been in place since 2012 and has helped transform thousands of lives in Sierra Leone. Brown has seen firsthand the sad alternative. He said the best English word to peg it is “witchcraft.”
He cited the instance of a 9-year-old girl who suffered a hairline fracture in her arm and came to his team after being treated by a witch doctor with herbs wrapped in tree bark.
“The herbs or whatever took all her skin off and the tree bark infected it, so there was a riproaring bad infection,” Brown said.
The team brought the girl into the operation room every other day for two weeks to wash the arm and treat it with antibiotics.
“The next team that came in had to amputate,” Brown said.
Last year, Brown traveled to four nations seeking an adequate training program for anesthesiologists, finally finding one in India with which to collaborate. Between Surg+Restore and ReSurge Africa, two future surgeons and two anesthesiologists are training or soon will be to serve the city of Makeni, Brown’s home base, and surrounding villages.
Lack of cash
Meanwhile, funding is drying up.
Surg+Restore and another nonprofit based in Portland that builds houses in Sierra Leone have teamed to conduct fundraisers in Portland. The most recent in September netted $11,000 and was highlighted by a documentary filmed in Sierra Leone in February.
“It’s going to cost about $1,300 a month to train an anestheologist, which we figure would probably include airfare but we have to train a second anesthesiologist, too. That’s going to cost some money,” he said.
An attorney and an accountant are on the payroll as well.
In January, a director on the foundation board sent out 150 grant proposals.
“He said normally you get about a 2 or 3 percent response, and we’d assumed maybe we’d get three to five people to respond,” Brown said. “We’ve had none so far.”
Ebola, he admitted, “did not do us any favors.”
The program was between physical therapists when the virus hit, and the training nurse was pulled out of Sierra Leone in July. An internist returned a month ago. At about the same time, one of the trained nurses, a male Sierra Leonese with two young children, died from Ebola. Ojos Feos played a benefit in Portland for the man’s family, raising $300