Southern Illinois University School of Medicine

Aspects Magazine Volume 37 No. 1 - Southern Illinois University School of Medicine Office of Public Affairs

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World-Class Care

SIU team heals Liberian President

Written by Karen Carlson

It’s rather unusual for an SIU HealthCare patient to be a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a world leader who brought a country back from civil war and a female president of an African country. But this past autumn, the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, received care from a team at SIU, led by orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Saadiq El-Amin.

Dr. El-Amin volunteered his services on a mission trip to Liberia, a country in West Africa and home to nearly 4 million people, in which about 85 percent live below the international poverty level. Dr. El-Amin first met Madame President’s son, Dr. James Sirleaf, during that mission trip. Dr. Sirleaf is an emergency medicine physician and chairman of HEARTT (Health Education and Relief Through Teaching).

"He asked me if I could see a ‘very important person,’ " Dr. El-Amin recalls. "I didn’t know it was Madame President until they brought her to me." Orthopaedic surgeons are in great demand in Liberia.

Upon examination, Dr. El-Amin discovered that President Sirleaf had severe arthritis in her right hand, so debilitating that using her hand had been nearly impossible for three years.

For the world leader, her hands are one of her tools to do her work. Dr. El-Amin and Ellen Johnson Sirlea

The first female African president, Sirleaf was a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2011 for "nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work." In 2006 she was named one of Forbes’ most powerful women in the world and five years later included among the "Entrepreneurs that Can Save the World." In 2010, Newsweek called her one of the "best leaders in the world."

In Liberia, Dr. El-Amin treated President Sirleaf, which provided her some relief. A few months later though, he received a call that the arthritis had worsened, Sirleaf was at the United Nations in New York when she called on Dr. El-Amin to be her physician.

Dr. El-Amin traveled to New York and determined that she needed surgery on her wrist. She selected Memorial Medical Center in Springfield for care with Dr. El-Amin at the helm. The medical team was comprised of SIU’s Surgery Chairman, Dr. Michael Neumeister; SIU family physician Dr. Janet Albers; SIU vascular surgeon Dr. Don Ramsey; Dr. Nasaraiah Nallamothu of Prairie Cardiovascular Consultants, Ltd; MMC staff and Dr. Judith Kelly of Associated Anesthesiologists of Springfield also assisted with the surgery.

"She was so gracious and humble, and the staff loved her. We were happy to help someone of her stature," says Dr. Neumeister.

"She was amazing," says Dr. Albers, professor and associate chair of the Springfield Family Medicine program. "She was very kind, easy to interact with and approachable. It was a whirlwind time, but the whole system worked well. Dr. El-Amin assembled a great team. It was through his concern and compassion that he was able to establish trust and bring this inspirational and delightful lady here."

Earlier in the week, President Sirleaf had received a local citizens award from the President of Costa Rica. The team moved swiftly to ensure quality care with Secret Service protection. Within 48 October hours, the 75-year-old president had a full medical evaluation and hand surgery. Dr. El-Amin recalls the moment he knew the surgery was a success: "We saw her move her fingers; it was a great moment. Here’s a woman who has done so much for so many, and we played a part in helping her continue her work. It was an honor that we as a team made a difference in her life."

President Sirleaf was back in Monrovia within 72 hours with full mobility of her fingers.

"Other than her security needs, I gave her the same treatment that we do for all our patients. Everybody came together to deliver the best quality care we could," notes Dr. El-Amin, who has made a friend for life. In the months following the surgery, he has followed-up with the president for what may be the farthest-traveled house call in history. He also has been invited to a family wedding.

"I appreciate SIU providing an environment that allows me to help practice around the world and the opportunity to meet one of the most influential individuals of our time, the first black female head of state in the world," Dr. El-Amin says. "I’ve learned a lot from her. When you interact with Madame President Sirleaf, she has ability to make you feel for that one moment that you are the only person there."

Source: Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2013. Web. 2 Dec 2013. http://tinyurl.com/kc4tolu

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