A retired anaesthetist with a passion for Africa

Retired anaesthetist Dr Keith Thomson is completely addicted to Africa. He told Jo Duckles how he has used his medical skills to help people in need on that continent.

We meet in Keith’s home in Ascot, where he lives with his wife and his daughter’s friendly spaniel, Max. Keith has been retired for three years but only took himself off the medical register last year.

“I’m no longer a medic and it’s quite hard because what you do is part of your role in life. It’s challenging for me to no longer be a doctor after 40 years.”

When he retired from Basingstoke Hospital he gave a talk entitled Africa, Why Bother? More than 60 people attended as he enthusiastically told stories about his experiences in Africa. “You either love or hate Africa. It is sunny and vibrant and you meet remarkable, friendly people who have tremendous faith,” says Keith, who first went to Africa as a medical student for three months in 1975. He returned to the UK a more confident medic, having carried out lumbar punctures, circumcisions and caesareans. As a junior doctor in 1983, Keith went back out to Africa with his wife and young daughter. His son was born during their time there.

Seven years later he got involved in Mercy Ships, which he describes as a “God-given opportunity.” Mercy Ships uses specially converted ships as floating hospitals to provide free surgical care for those in need in Africa. These were entirely staffed by self-funding medical and non-medical professionals.

“In September 1990 during a flight to Manchester I read an article in a discarded newspaper about Mercy Ships and that they were looking especially for nurses and anaesthetists to work onboard the Anastasis during its first ever visit to West Africa. Six months later I flew to Ghana and worked on board the ship as the anaesthetist for three weeks. My wife had read the same article and knew I would want to go. We went as a family on three occasions over Christmas. This was a valuable experience for all of us.”

Over the next 20 years Keith would take leave, sometimes unpaid, to spend two to three weeks on a Mercy Ship every year. “You are working in an extraordinary community of several hundred people on the ship. There is no smoking or drinking allowed on board. There are services and discussion groups. It’s like a floating village. Only a third of the crew are doctors and nurses and then we need people to run the ship such as engineers and deck officers, volunteers to work in the galley, in hospitality and in a host of administrative positions.” Keith’s last Mercy Ships trip was in 2010. He is a cancer survivor who still suffers the effects of radiotherapy he had in his mouth in 2005. But he doesn’t let that stop him working to help those in need in Africa.

He is now a trustee of Mercy Ships and is very enthusiastic about a multi million pound new ship that is being built in China. His work now revolves more around running anaesthesia conferences, sharing British medical techniques with fellow African professionals. He has now run these in 14 African countries.

“Some of the nurses and doctors in Africa do a remarkable job with a lack of drugs, equipment and even training. I impress on my (mainly British) team that we are not there to tell them what to do, but to share our knowledge and help them make better use of what they have available.”

Another of Keith’s objectives is creating the next generations of British medics who are interested in the ongoing challenges faced by anaesthetists and midwives in Africa. When we met, he was about to travel to Liberia with eight other doctors and one midwife. “Liberia has a torrid history. I have been five times now. I have friends there including Joshua Blayhi.”

Blayhi is a former warlord who sought forgiveness aged 24 and is now a preacher working with former child soldiers. “I help pay for Joshua’s children’s school fees and now he’s doing fine but if he came to Britain or America I suspect he might be sent to the Hague to be locked up for war crimes,” says Keith.

“It is a challenge running conferences in countries you have never been to before. I don’t now do any teaching, I leave that to my younger colleagues. I’m the logistics man.” The people who travel with Keith pay for part of their trip, and he applies for grants to help them cover part of the costs.

They are given the opportunity to find out if they are suited to working in African cultures. Keith says: “I just feel a calling to it. I feel I have a couple of gifts. One is getting on with Africans. I don’t get upset if things don’t happen immediately. Africans are relationship minded and they don’t forget you if they like you. They also want to see you. Church services are different. Two hours is a short service in Africa. People get dressed up for church and Sunday is an occasion where they get together with their friends.”

Keith is less keen on the hero worship he encounters, particularly at one church where he helped fund three toilets and a wash basin. “People were leaving the services because they needed the loo and not coming back. I raised a bit of money and now the loo is named after me,” he says. Keith has been a member of All Soul’s Church in South Ascot since he moved to the village in 1990. “The church is very supportive of Mercy Ships. I’ve taken a group to the Gambia. I went through Thomas Cook for the flights and accommodation and 12 of us went.
Our curate said we were just going to look, listen, learn and pray, which seemed sensible.

“There was an African church half a mile away from the hotel so we went along. We were the only white people there. They had 15 hymns and some of the group had never experienced anything like that before,” he says. Keith also gives talks in schools on Africa. “One student gave me such a complimentary report I am using it in my publicity. It was very powerful coming from a pupil.”

Keith is aware that he can’t help everyone in need in Africa. He tells the story of an African girl who sees a shoal of starfish dying from dehydration on an African beach. As she throws them back, she is asked why she is bothering when she can’t save them all. She answers: “I can make a difference to this one, and this one, and this one.”

“I can help some of the people I meet in Africa, but changing the system is more difficult,” says Keith. In 2014 Keith was in Liberia with a group of doctors and midwives from Basingstoke Hospital. They met a woman in her 30s with a jaw tumour, a common problem in Western Africa. The woman had suffered for eight years but couldn’t afford to see a doctor.

Keith arranged for her to travel to Corsu Hospital near Entebbe to see a surgeon — a daunting prospect especially as it meant leaving her village to get into a car with a white man to visit a city she had never been to. She now finds other patients with similar problems to take to the same hospital, 11 in 2016 and five more so far this year.

Keith finds friends and family in the UK to help fund their operations. Starfish Enterprise is the name he has given to the project. Another of Keith’s many stories involves a pregnant 19-year-old who had been in labour for four days. It was 1993 in Sierra Leone, and she had no money to pay for a caesarean. Her name was Catherine Conteh and she would have died if Keith hadn’t arranged for the operation. Five years later, the little girl, Regina, and her parents met him and his wife when they arrived at Conakry Airport in Guinea. She was holding a sign which read “Uncle Keith, thank you for saving my life and my mum’s. You are most welcome.” More recently Keith received a Whatsapp message from Catherine, with a picture of Regina who had just passed her final nursing exams. Catherine had passed her’s three years earlier.

Keith lives in Ascot with his wife Fiona. He has two adult children, Rebecca and Duncan and two grandchildren, Isla and Hamish. He initially responded to a call for Whatever You Do prayer calendar participants. His prayer points are:

  • Keith’s health
  • Future conferences and health and safety for his teams
  • The Gambia school project run by All Soul’s, Ascot
  • The new Mercy Ship – final funding and staffing

This is an older post. Please note that the information may not be accurate anymore.

31ST MAY 2017

Page last updated: Friday 24th September 2021 3:32 PM
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