When Lorna Renner started working as a doctor in Ghana, many of her colleagues had only one thing on their minds: getting out of the country. Between 1985 and 1994, 60 per cent of medical graduates took jobs overseas, attracted by better pay and working conditions. Few returned.
Dr Renner also decided to go abroad, but for very different reasons. As a medical resident at the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra, she had seen how little expertise there was to treat child cancer. Infants with leukaemia or other forms of the disease had very low odds of survival. “I would get to know the children and their families and really wanted to do something to help,” Dr Renner said. “It really touches you to see children in pain.”
So she set off for the UK to specialise in paediatric oncology, determined to return “and be useful” with her new skills. The seven-year journey took her to several hospitals and, finally, the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh. She was not tempted to stay in that comfortable life, despite knowing the challenge that awaited her. “In the UK, I was a spoke in a well-oiled wheel,” she said. “I knew that in Ghana I would have to be the wheel.”
It is one that never stops rolling. Deeply committed, caring and persuasive, Dr Renner has been the face and the driving force behind child cancer treatment in Ghana for more than a decade and is one of only two paediatric oncologists in the capital. She has brought hope to hundreds of seriously ill children, and inspired a generation of medical students who have benefited from her teaching.
Through countless media interviews, Dr Renner has also been responsible for raising awareness of the disease – and raising money from churches, women’s group and private donors domestically to improve facilities and help subsidise the cost of treatment.
Though Ghana has a national health insurance scheme that covers many diseases, including breast and cervical cancer, child cancer is not included. The most common form of cancer in Ghanaian children, Burkitt’s lymphoma, can be treated for as little as $700, it is far beyond the means of many families.
Yet, despite all the progress since her return from training in the UK, there is still so much more to do. The two hospitals in Ghana that treat child cancer see about 250 new cases a year. But it is believed that 1,000 new cases develop in the country every 12 months. “What happens to the 750 children we don’t see?” she said.
That is why she initiated the partnership between Korle Bu hospital and World Child Cancer, the UK-based charity selected by the Financial Times for the 2013 Seasonal Appeal. The collaboration began in 2010, after Dr Renner met Dr Tim Eden, a paediatric oncologist who is a co-founder of WCC, at a conference.
After visiting Ghana, and seeing Dr Renner in action, Dr Eden arranged for the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh, where he had also worked previously, to enter into a “twinning” relationship with Korle Bu.
Under the partnership, doctors, nurses and pharmacists from Edinburgh travel to Ghana every six months to train local medical workers in treating and caring for cancer patients. The charity helps subsidise the costs of tests and medicine for the poorest families, and has funded countrywide campaigns to raise awareness.
Early results of the collaboration have been encouraging. The number of children abandoning treatment – mainly for financial reasons – has dropped from 25 per cent in 2009 to about 6 per cent.
This year, the percentage of children still alive and undergoing treatment a year after diagnosis reached 72 per cent, compared with just 39 per cent four years ago. “Lorna is superb and a major reason why the project has been a success,” Dr Eden said.
Another reason is Dr Catherine Segbefia, a Nigerian who was one of Dr Renner’s medical students in Accra. She also specialised in paediatric oncology abroad. “It was easy to come back – that was always the plan,” Dr Segbefia said.
It is rewarding work, but tough. She and Dr Renner are almost always on call, keeping their phones and internet access nearby even when on holiday. Not that either of them complain. Dr Renner said: “We still lose children, but at least families know that even if we could not cure their kids, we cared.”
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