Dr. Nina Capo-Chichi joined Smile Train in December 2019 as our Program Manager for Francophone West Africa, where she oversees our work in Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Conakry, and Togo. An experienced medical doctor, she was part of an international community of clinicians who, in April, published guidelines in the journal Annals of Surgery on preparing Sub-Saharan Africa’s surgical ecosystem for COVID-19. She recently spoke with us about her journey to publication, how a chance encounter with a malnourished child taught her the true importance of Smile Train’s work, and more.
How did you research your article in Annals of Surgery?
I needed facts and information to find solutions for combatting COVID-19 in the operating room, and as I was researching, I found myself gathering all my information through direct interviews with colleagues and researchers on the ground. I then finalized my contribution by adding what I considered was necessary or possible to accomplish in western Africa. The whole process made me realize how much danger my colleagues and our entire surgical system face in the pandemic.
With the pandemic not going away any time soon, how can healthcare systems manage the strain on their already limited resources?
We need strong leadership and organization to establish and enforce guidelines that will help everyone stay safe. No one should be making important decisions about things like the proper management of limited resources and distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) alone. At the hospitals in my region, we got a lot of our information from articles in Annals of Surgery and online webinars. We also received additional PPE from the government and NGOs such as Smile Train. It is important that we restructure the healthcare system while still doing our daily activities. We must find a new normal as we correct our weaknesses.
How did you learn about Smile Train?
I first met Nkeiruka Obi, Smile Train’s Program Director for West and Central Africa, briefly a few years ago at the West African College of Surgeons conference in Banjul, The Gambia. I didn’t think much about it, though, until last year when our paths crossed again while I was working with an international healthcare NGO. That is when Nkeiruka told me what makes Smile Train so special and I knew I had to become a part of it.
Is there a patient who inspired you?
I have not met many patients due to the pandemic, but I had one impactful meeting with a baby named Isaac and his mom. Once, at a traffic light stop, a lady vigorously stopped a Smile Train volunteer who was distributing handbills to tell him about Isaac, her neighbor’s child who had a cleft and needed our help. The volunteer took Isaac’s mother’s number and called her, telling her to come in for free surgery. When we met at the partner hospital for checkup, I saw a 2-month-old baby whose nutritional status said a lot about his mother’s desperation. In that moment, I realized that the effect of having a cleft in Benin and the rest of our region is beyond socio-psychological, aesthetic, or educational — it is also economic and spiritual. I knew then that we need a lot more awareness here than I thought. My job is to bring it to them.