x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A journey with caring at its heart

A group of medical professionals started travelling the world a few years ago, to people in remote areas who had little or no access to health care. This led to the Emirates' first mobile hospital.

Dr Adel al Shamry also plans to start mobile clinics and medical outposts.
Dr Adel al Shamry also plans to start mobile clinics and medical outposts.

ABU DHABI // It took only a day to set up in a field in the town of Juba in southern Sudan, but over the next few months thousands will flock to the tent-like structure. From the outside, the purpose of the collapsible building is not immediately clear. But step inside and the rooms, beds, equipment and sterile environment give it away. The unique hospital is on its maiden journey to bring first-rate medical care to remote and disadvantaged parts of the world.

The Emirates International Humanitarian Mobile Hospital is believed to be the region's first civilian field hospital, based on a model normally used for military purposes. The four 26-metre-long, air-conditioned chambers house hospital wards, an intensive care unit, operating theatre, waiting rooms and a pharmacy. It is part of a humanitarian project initiated by the Emirates World Heart Group. "This project is about creating a model of unity and partnership to give to those in need," says Dr Adel al Shamry, the chief executive of the Zayed Giving Initiative and the hospital's executive director.

"It is especially important because medical care is very expensive, so we are bringing expertise through this unique project." As well as providing free medical services and consultations, staff will carry out surgeries and training and play a preventive role by raising awareness about health care. On its first trip, the hospital was set up this week in Juba, the capital of Central Equatoria, a state in the semi-autonomous southern region of Sudan. It will open its doors to patients next week.

During the first month, up to 500 patients are expected to pass through the hospital's doors every day. Some will be cared for on the spot, others will be admitted to one of the facility's 25 beds. There is also an on-site operating room and a six-bed intensive-care unit. "It is a hospital and it feels like a hospital, but one that can reach the people in need," says Dr al Shamry. "It is especially important to have a surgical hospital that can perform complex surgeries to save lives."

An aircraft arrived in Juba from the UAE a week ago carrying the technical support staff who set up the hospital and medical equipment. On Thursday a second plane brought another technical team. The medical team, including Dr al Shamry, is expected to fly out in the next few days. After an initial assessment of the needs in the city and surrounding areas, Dr al Shamry says he expected the team to perform a range services to the local community, including orthopaedic procedures and eventually more complex thoracic and cardiac surgeries.

Health professionals from around the world have volunteered their time and expertise to the project. More than 70 staff members will be working at the hospital, including Emiratis, locals and other nationalities. There will be full-time medical staff, individuals on secondment from other organisations and volunteers who travel out for around a week at a time. "We have Emiratis, British, French, Canadians, Egyptians, Filipinos," says Dr al Shamry, one of only four Emirati heart surgeons.

He will be travelling back and forth between Sudan and the UAE, managing the project. To ensure their skills are being put to the best use, the UAE team are working closely with local medical officials, including those from the University Hospital of Juba. For the time being, the hospital will remain on site, although medical teams will also be dispatched in mobile clinics to go out into even more remote villages.

There are also plans to open what Dr al Shamry describes as "medical camps", which will be set up in other populated areas while the hospital is based in Juba. The state of Central Equatoria has a population of 560,000, but only 113 health facilities, according to UN figures. The region has been ravaged by two decades of ethnic conflict, between the Muslim north and the mostly Christian south. Between 1983 and 2005, two million people died and four million fled their homes.

Just this week, a UN official said women and children were increasingly being caught up in tribal fighting in the south of the country. The "flying hospital" project is just the latest in a long line of health-related initiatives with which Dr al Shamry, 39, has been involved. His organisation, the Zayed Giving Initiative, was launched in 2003 to promote sustainable community development, health care and education, and volunteering.

International and local projects have been spawned through the group, including Heart Giving, which provides free heart surgeries around the world, and Giving Hand, which sends paediatric surgeons to patients in remote locations. Dr al Shamry, a full-time consultant in cardiothoracic surgery at Zayed Military Hospital in Abu Dhabi, became the youngest UAE national to be certified by the Canadian board in heart surgery, at the age of 30.

By 35, he was the UAE's youngest heart surgeon. Through their international work, said Dr al Shamry, his team realised that while they had been bringing expertise to remote regions, what was lacking was proper medical infrastructure. So the idea to bring first-rate medical care and facilities into isolated communities was born. The hospital is run by a board, comprised of members from several partner organisations, including the UAE Red Crescent Authority, the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi, the Ministry of Health, the Zakat Fund and Al Noor Hospital.

The fact that so many different organisations and bodies are involved has strengthened the project, says Dr al Shamry. "It is a unique model - a multi-programme partnership between government bodies and the private sector who united for a cause locally and internationally." The project has been no simple feat. According to Dr al Shamry, the running costs alone will reach Dh20 million (US$5.4m) a year, with the budget for the initial three-year project topping Dh60m, funded by a combination of all of the partner organisations.

While the hospital will be dispatched to remote corners of the world to meet medical needs, it will also move around the UAE periodically, as a training hospital as well as to generate publicity. The project is set to run for an initial three-year period, with the hospital scheduled to move every four months. After southern Sudan, it will be packed up and moved to Morocco, before heading to Lebanon.

Although the UAE has left its healthcare mark around the world through the construction of hospitals, Dr al Shamry says this project differs in that it also brings healthcare professionals into remote areas. "Sometimes they don't even have access to primary care, but we are looking at that and secondary and surgical care. "The hospital has turned out above our expectations. It was a dream, but one that was very difficult to put together because of the magnitude and value of the equipment and technology, cost and expertise."

zconstantine@thenational.ae