An incredible recovery: a young patient and a determined doctor

Sedi Mbelani, a nurse from Congo Brazzaville, has recently finished a posting with MSF in the Central African Republic. She shares the story of Fanny, a patient she met by chance back in 2017, and of the doctor who was determined to help her...

There are many patients and many cases that I remember from my time in the field, but during a recent assignment in Central African Republic (CAR), there was a particular patient who stands out.

She was a young lady named Fanny, around 19 or 20 years old. She had first come to the clinic in Ndele two years before, in 2014, pregnant, and suffering from serious burns all over her body and legs. The burns were from boiling water, and unfortunately they were so severe that nothing could be done to keep the pregnancy. Doctors sadly couldn’t save her baby.

Image shows a small village with around 30 people sitting together at a small market

Ndele is a small town near the border with Chad and Sudan. Photo: Juan Carlos Tomasi / MSF 

But the team tried to do what they could to help Fanny. Her burns were very serious, so all they really could do was clean and dress the wounds and give it time. She spent many months recovering at the hospital, with the team tending to her burns.

In 2015, a new doctor, Dr Isabel, arrived in Ndele. She saw Fanny and proposed to try and refer her to a hospital in the capital city, Bangui, where she could get a skin graft. A skin graft is an operation where healthy skin is transplanted to a site on a patient's body where the original skin has been damaged, to help improve how that part of the body looks or functions.

A surgeon went to see Fanny to assess the possibility of diong a skin graft, but they said her condition was still too serious and it wouldn’t be possible to do the operation. Once again the team dressed the wounds and waited.

When Dr Isabel completed her posting and left the Central African Republic, Fanny was still at the hospital.

When Dr Isabel completed her posting and left the Central African Republic, Fanny was still at the hospital.

A year later, in 2016, Dr Isabel returned to the project, now to work as the Medical Team Leader. She realised Fanny was still there, and decided that they had to try once more to get her further treatment. They sent pictures of Fanny to the surgeons in Bangui and proposed that they need to help her.

The surgeons said it was a very complicated procedure because of the extent of Fanny’s wounds. They felt they couldn’t do it. But Dr Isabel pointed out that Fanny’s condition was better than it had been a year ago, so they decided to try.

Again, Fanny had to wait.

But there was another challenge. It’s difficult to travel from Ndele to Bangui, there is no way by car, you can only fly from the project to the capital in a small plane, and flights are not often available. Again, Fanny had to wait.

By the time Dr Isabel was ending her second posting, Fanny was still waiting. I arrived from Bangui to fill in for Dr Isabel while they waited for a new Medical Team Leader to arrive.

For months, this doctor had pushed to get extra treatment for Fanny and now her time there was up.

Image shows MSF staff at the airport in Bangui, disembarking a small plane

MSF staff disembarking a plane at Bangui airport. Photo: Borja Ruiz Rodriguez/MSF

Until finally, on the very last day when Dr Isabel was about to leave Ndele, the team found space for Fanny on the same plane. Finally, she could be evacuated to Bangui for the procedure.

To see this young girl travelling to get care with the same doctor who had been pushing for her to get treatment for two years was an incredible feeling.

It was emotional, everyone in the hospital who knew the girl and her family were crying.

Fanny went to the capital, had the surgery, and her legs were put in a cast to help them heal.

I recently heard that after so much time in hospital she is now back home at last, and she is even learning to walk again.

MSF stopped working in Ndele in March 2017, but continues to work elsewhere in the Central African Republic.