In 1959, the first open heart surgery was performed on a child at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital. Since then, the Hospital’s phenomenal medical professionals have been saving the lives of children daily and today they perform around 300 cardiac operations each year.

The Hospital is proud to employ some of the world’s renowned specialists in all fields. One such individual is Dr André Brooks, the Hospital’s newly appointed Head of the Clinical Unit of Congenital and Paediatric Cardiothoracic Surgery.

Dr Brooks completed his medical studies at the University of Stellenbosch in 1993 before starting his career as a Cardiothoracic Surgeon at the Provincial Hospital in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. His dedication and skills have earned him international respect as an expert in his field, a clinical researcher, practitioner and leader.

Sharing critical skills

Dr Brooks is conscious of the responsibility that his division has towards improving the wellbeing of children beyond South Africa, specifically when it comes to sharing critical skills with medical teams outside the country. “The figures are clear – the ratio of surgeons to patients in Africa is low. Given the logistical difficulties facing African families when it comes to accessing health care, we have an obligation to ensure that our peers outside this country are trained to perform radical, decisive surgery on their patients without hesitation. They need the skills to ensure that their patients leave hospital as physiologically normal as possible. That way, they won’t need to keep coming back for further treatment that was so difficult to access in the first place.”

Looking ahead, Dr Brooks’ vision is to establish a permanent two-year African training fellowship at the Hospital supported by an ambitious cross-continental outreach programme. “We already have a strong African network, especially in countries such as Senegal, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Namibia. Our aim is to extend that network as widely as possible across the continent, but also into developed nations. Of course, our unit benefits tremendously from collaboration with leading international units. But, likewise, the First World has a lot to learn from developing countries, notably when it comes to handling the cultural and logistical challenges that overseas medics face when they come here on outreach.”

Pioneering work

While acknowledging such challenges, Dr Brooks is focused on doing whatever he can to make sure his division continues to expand the scope of its pioneering work, at home and abroad. “We must never allow ourselves to get blasé about the fact that the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital is a precious resource. But there is always a need to do more with what we have. Ultimately, the target is to increase the number of operations we perform every year from 300 to 450. That figure would mark a major step towards meeting the demand we face – and it is absolutely within our reach. We believe we can achieve it by optimising the way we use our current resources.”

Reflecting on the achievements the division has already made, Dr Brooks says “I am particularly proud of the programme that we’ve developed during the last decade that supports a strategy of complete, definitive repair. This strategy was based on local research and programme reviews. In addition, we have adopted many surgical strategies that consider local conditions in developing countries. One notable example involves introducing techniques for reconstructing the right heart ventricle without the initial use of a valved conduit.”

Donor support

While the department’s credentials as a world-class centre of excellence are beyond dispute, Dr Brooks believes that it can do even more to benefit African children. He is quick to acknowledge the indispensable role that donors have played in the Hospital’s work historically. He is equally confident that with their help, the unit can eliminate the minor logistical constraints that prevent it from working to maximum capacity.

“By making relatively small, low-cost adjustments to the way we operate, we can make much better use of our life-saving resources. Let me give you an example: by providing funds to transport staff home after they have worked extra hours in theatre, we can significantly increase the number of patients we operate on. Time-saving measures of this sort don’t cost the earth, but the difference they make is huge.”

We’d like to thank all who support The Children’s Hospital Trust, which advances child healthcare through the Hospital. “Every cent makes a difference and will allow the Unit to extract maximum value from our world-class asset”.