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The machines that save lives: Continuing the spread of safer surgery in Mongolia

Some of our pieces have had an impact close to home. After reporting her article, Jane Feinmann decided to get directly involved in making Mongolian surgery safer.

It’s two years since I reported for Mosaic on how pulse oximeters, donated by the charity Lifebox, are making anaesthesia and surgery safer in rural Mongolia and beyond.

Since then, the charity has distributed a further 4,000 devices in 45 low- and middle-income countries, in addition to the 15,000 that had already been handed out when I wrote my piece. Crucially, Lifebox has also provided training on safer surgery and anaesthesia to hundreds of local doctors – which is essential when every year an estimated 4.2 million people worldwide still die within 30 days of having surgery.

Over the past two years, Lifebox enabled 7.5 million safer operations. And a few thousand of these safer surgeries took place in rural Mongolia.

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In January 2019, for example, Dr Ganbold Lundeg took a precious Lifebox oximeter to Uvs province in the far east of the country, using it to provide training for emergency heart surgery at a local clinic.

And Professor David Pescod has been taking Lifebox oximeters to Murun, a town in the country’s far north. The devices, he says, have been “an integral component” in training local doctors to provide safe anaesthesia.

In particular, Pescod says, they’ve helped treat children recovering from burns, a “common hazard in communities where open fires are part of everyday life, and which, if untreated, can cause life-changing deformity”.

But with tens of thousands of operating rooms around the world still functioning without pulse oximetry, the charity’s work is “far from complete”, says Lifebox CEO Kris Torgeson. “We’re so grateful to have a publication such as Mosaic to help us advocate for safer surgery and anaesthesia globally,” she says.

I’m also grateful to Lifebox and Mosaic for supporting my visit to Mongolia – and for helping me understand the dramatic improvements to healthcare that can come from providing inexpensive, high-quality equipment and safe anaesthesia training. It’s even inspired me to play a small part in bringing about change myself.

Once back from Mongolia, I spread a message from Ganbold. He had asked for my help in seeking donations of robust ‘drawover’ anaesthesia machines – made by the UK engineering firm DiaMedica – to enable surgery across the Mongolian Steppes and the Gobi desert.

These machines don’t require a reliable electricity or oxygen supply, making them ideal for surgery in remote places. And with just 20 machines and the correct training, Ganbold told me, Mongolian doctors could provide timely, countrywide safe surgery, potentially helping a million men, women and children living in the remote countryside.

A charity, Safe Anaesthesia Worldwide, responded to my call by donating two of these machines. And in November 2017, with the help of colleagues and friends, I set up a fundraising group, which 12 months later purchased and dispatched two more.

These are now in use, Ganbold told me in January – “enabling delivery of safe anaesthesia and surgery to communities that previously had no access”.

I wish I could say job done, but my fundraising work continues. If safe surgery is to be accessible throughout rural Mongolia, there’s a need for 16 more of these machines.

Read our other pieces celebrating the impact of five years of Mosaic stories – including updates on our stories on teens in Iceland, the swallowing disorder dysphagia, and postpartum psychosis.