Former Grand Falls-Windsor doctor tackles African dilemma
Past resident helping to solve surgeon shortage
Published on December 15, 2016
Dr. Wendy Willmore celebrated the snow while visiting her former home in Grand Falls-Windsor. Willmore closed her practice in town over three years ago and moved to Africa to help the African nation with a shortage of surgeons.
GRAND FALLS-WINDSOR, NL -For Dr. Wendy Willmore a trip home to Canada wouldn’t be complete without a stop in central Newfoundland. After all, Willmore’s time in Grand Falls-Windsor helped prepare her for dealing with the culture shock of moving to Africa.Tanzania to be specific. “Let’s face it, Tanzanians are very hospitable people, they love having visitors, they’re very much like Newfoundlanders in that way,” said Willmore. “It’s only as you sort of live there for awhile you say, geez people do really think quite differently here.” Willmore is the program director at Arusha Lutheran Medical Centre (ALMC) located in the east African country of Tanzania.
To say the troubled African nation faces a shortage of surgeons is similar to saying there is a little bit of water surrounding Newfoundland.
In other words, it’s a huge understatement. “If you put them together, the surgeons here in Grand Falls-Windsor and the ones in Gander, there’s got to be what 60,000 people (they serve) all told,” said Willmore. “We have the same number of surgeons, in a city of 1.8 million people, where I work.”
Another trait famously linked to Newfoundlanders is their desire to help those in need and their generosity when doing so. It’s a trait shared by Willmore, despite not being a native Newfoundlander. Willmore says she has been driven to help others since she was a child in Fort Erie, Ontario. It’s also what drove her to give up her budding practice, North American salary and most of the benefits usually associated with being a medical professional. “I loved Grand Falls-Windsor, I really did,” said Willmore. “But there was always that push to say; well when were you going to go help those people, when are you going do that.”
So in December of 2012 Willmore closed down her practice in town and began planning. With no specific destination on the continent in mind, Willmore volunteered for three hospitals in Kenya and Tanzania before she accepted a position to serve as a full-time surgeon, co-director and faculty member of a new surgical residency program in Arusha. “When I first went out there in 2013 I didn’t know where I was going to end up, I just knew I wanted to end up teaching surgery,” said Willmore. “Really, if you just go over there and help a few people that’s great, but when you leave the situation is just as bad as when you came.” But unprepared for the reality that is Tanzanian health care, Willmore soon found herself facing unimagined dilemma’s. Willmore used to receive an annual salary for her work in Tanzania. She gave up that salary shortly after accepting a position on the hospital’s management board.
“I started hearing all the trouble the hospital has,” she said. “We’re paying $5000 in generator fees because the power grid is so bad this month. The insurance company’s haven’t paid us so everyone’s salary is going to be late again this month.”
The sight of her coworkers in tears waiting for paycheques was the last straw. Willmore gave up her salary and began an effort to cover her expenses through charitable donations. So in essence she still receives a salary, if an unusual one. “Because I have to pay taxes in Tanzania, I essentially write a cheque for my salary to the hospital every year and they pay me back,” said Willmore. Financial horrors are the least of Tanzania’s health care worries. Willmore tells TC Media about one of her patients, named only M, for privacy reasons.
Pregnant at the age of 14, the result of a suspected rape, complications forced M to have the baby via caesarian section. The resulting surgery left her bowels leaking through a hole in her stomach. Due to the shortage of surgeons in Tanzania, M was forced to live with the condition for eight years. “They did the best they could, I don’t think they managed to save the baby, but they saved her life,” said Willmore. “They said do you think you can fix this; and I said ‘Yeah, it’s not really that difficult, any decent surgeon can fix that.’”
Two years later she is still teaching and practicing in Tanzania but says she comes “home” about once every two years. Willmore has no blood relatives on the Island, but says she can’t come back to Canada without visiting Newfoundland. “I stayed here for four and a half years after my residency because I loved it, I really did. Newfoundlanders are very generous people, their hearts go out to those who have nothing,” said Willmore. “Their hands are open to give back, so yeah, I come home and say would you like to help.”
Donations can be made to support Willmore mission through Commission To Every Nation,an inter-denominational missionary co-operative serving 643 missionaries in 56 nations.