The Heart of Cameroon
The sun sets on the beautiful, yet wildly differing, landscape of Cameroon.
This isolated corner of the world is home to one of the best cardiac centers in all of Africa.
By Anna Pozzi
A center of cardio surgical excellence in the Cameroon forest; here, adults and children with heart conditions have the unique opportunity of surviving, thanks to a solidarity network.
The road to get there is nothing short of bumpy, but what you find once you get to Shisong is absolutely amazing. Not only because this place in the Northwest of Cameroon is immersed in a beautiful lush forest, but also, because in this lost corner of the world there is one of the best cardiac surgery centers in all of Africa.
Certainly the best, as well as the only one until recently, in the whole Western sub-Saharan region of the continent of Africa; the Cardiac Center in Shisong is a pearl not only for health, but also for cooperation and solidarity. It serves a potential basin of 200 million people and since its inauguration, in November 2009, it has performed over 1,500 operations, many of them on children. All thanks to the determination of the Franciscan Tertiary Sisters, an order that originated in Bressanone, Italy; as well as thanks to the Lombard Capuchins present in Shisong; the skills of the members of the Cardiopathic Children’s Association in the world, linked to a hospital of excellence for heart disease that is the Policlinico di San Donato Milanese; and to the generosity of the volunteers and benefactors of the Cuore Fratello Onlus association. Together they have created the “Project Cameroon” which carries out a great work in the small place called Shisong.
Seen from the outside, a highly specialized center for cardiopathic care in such a remote place might seem like madness, and yet, it was here that the conditions were found for creating something extraordinary that could last over time. “We started from a local need and a stimulus that came from Shisong,” explains Roberto Fonda, a member of the board for the nonprofit Cuore Fratello. “The Tertiary Sisters, in Cameroon since 1936, already managed an excellent hospital with about 300 beds: the Saint Elizabeth Catholic General Hospital. They also tenaciously wanted to have a cardiac surgery department to meet the needs of the many patients with cardiovascular diseases that are greatly diffused in Africa.”
As in many other cases, Providence also played a part in a meeting that proved to be full of pleasant consequences. “At the beginning of the 2000’s,” continues Fonda. “Fr. Claudio Maggioni, who was the chaplain of the Policlinico di San Donato Milanese from 1997 to 2012 and was the president of Cuore Fratello, knew the owner of a hardware store right in front of the hospital. He was the brother of a Capuchin missionary who worked in Shisong, Fr. Angelo Pagano. He would motivate the start of the project and follow it through to its realization. Given the importance of the problem, the founders of Project Cameroon met and evaluated the possibility of making a specialized center in Shisong. We knew the excellent work the nuns were already doing, while the Capuchins became the cohesive force binding the three realities.”
With a lot of work within a few years, the Cardiac Center in Shisong was organized and consolidated both in terms of structures and equipment, and for the other fundamental aspect: medical and health skills. This was thanks to the Cardiopathic Children’s Association, founded in 1993 on the initiative of a cardiac surgeon, Dr. Alessandro Frigiola and a resuscitative anesthesiologist, Dr. Silvia Cirri. “Every year they set up three expeditions to Shisong,” he explains, “during which, they each do surgery on 12 to 15 children.” During the rest of the year, however, there are doctors and local staff, many of who specialized to carry out operations, especially on adults. Currently the team of the Cardiac Center has about 90 people in various roles; in recent years, missions from England, Germany, Belgium, as well as from Milan and Rome, have also supported them.
“We, as an association, support only cardiac children, except in special cases. Until today we have been able to do surgical procedures on more than 90, without counting the 123 that we had sent to Italy before the Shisong Center became operative.” All of them would have no other chance of surviving. Many families live with resignation to the cardiovascular diseases of their children.
They know that there is no future for them because in Africa there are no specialized centers; also because, in Cameroon as elsewhere, there is no national health system that bears the costs. Which of course, for this type of interventions, are huge as almost no one can afford them.
Cuore Fratello has also created a sister-association locally, Brotherly Heart Cameroon, which works for the most disadvantaged people who access the Cardiac Center. “Thanks to donations,” he concludes, “we were able to buy a house, Angela House, after the name of Angela, Fr. Claudio’s sister, who died prematurely due to heart disease.”
So, this great challenge in the depths of Cameroon continues, despite the many difficulties and, lately, despite the tensions that are affecting this English-speaking area of the country currently marginalized by the government of Yaoundé. Yes, in Shisong we continue to look to the future – especially of heart patients – with great optimism and hope.