Monday, July 25, 2011

July 25th, 2011

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

A visitor came excitedly to the airfield at Kpong last week.  ‘I heard girl on the radio…’ he exclaimed half-sprinting across the grass.  I raised my head, wondering what could be so amazing and, as he sat down, he continued ‘there is this young woman in hospital who wants to be a pilot!’.  He was so excited at the news; I am sure that my wry grin and un-surprise burst his bubble.  He went on ‘It was on BBC World Service, there is a Ghanaian Reconstructive Plastic Surgeon who just got some award in Scotland, and he has done surgery on a young lady called Lydia who says she wants to be a pilot.’ 

Lydia is a fifteen-year old, smiling, young and energetic somebody I know very well, and have spent over a year working with her towards her rehabilitation, preparation for surgery and flight training. 

The BBC reported that Mr Opoku-Ware-Ampomah has this month received investiture as a ‘Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh’ – which is fantastic.  For those who have not visited the Reconstructive Plastic Surgery and Burns unit at Korle Bu, you are unaware of a gemstone in our crown of medical care.  Although I openly admit that, despite the incredible support from ReSurge Africa, this unit is still in need of support – financial and practical - the work that they do there is outstanding. 

Lydia, a young student pilot, is disabled.  She suffers, or rather is recovering from, a right arm contracture.  As a small child she received an insect-bite on her right elbow.  That got infected, possibly picked up some Mycobacterium ulcerans infection (Buruli Ulcer), probably received lots of  inappropriate ‘local’ care, and finally, during ten years of bleeding, oozing and being held close to her body, the right arm skin bridged the gap between her upper-arm and forearm leaving it locked I position just under her chin, wrist deformation and limited use.  All of these outcomes avoidable with appropriate care early on in the wound cycle. 

Lydia came to the airfield and started learning to fly, sponsored by WAASPS and Medicine on the Move, and showed such a great spirit, determination and tenacity that it became clear that she had what it takes to undergo release of the contracture and reconstruction of her right arm.  Lydia quickly grasped the theory and practice of flying in an amazing manner, and also the techniques of working the tower radio.  Just prior to entering hospital, she would handle three aircraft in the circuit on the radio without hesitation!

Mr Ampomah is one of only a handful of reconstructive plastic surgeons in West Africa, and he is incredibly dedicated to what he does.  After assessment he agreed to undertake surgery that involved dissecting the contracture, releasing adhesions, finding the arteries and nerves and repositioning the arm at a ninety-degree angle.  In a second surgical operation the skill of the scalpel was used to separate and lift a section of the vertical muscle band from the right hand side of her back, retaining the blood vessels and structure of that tissue, then threading it underneath her armpit and wrapping it around her flesh devoid structure section of her arm.  Finally, skin was taken from the leg and placed over the fresh tissue, and all three sites dressed. 

Yes, this was done in Ghana – beautifully carried out.  Skill and attention to detail that many people are not aware is available within our territory.  Of course, it is team work, and the anaesthetists, surgeons, nurses, physiotherapists all work together. In much the same way aircraft operations are based on team work, it is also the surgery team’s essential mantra.

Aviation here has extra challenges with the environmental conditions, so does the RPS and Burns Unit at Korle Bu.  The heat, the atmospheric petri-dish we all breathe and the conditions that visitors and staff drive and walk through on their way to the hospital create increased risks of post-operative infection and complications.  With this there is a need for more attention to detail – something which Mr Ampomah is clearly working towards, support from those who ‘should-and-can’ permitting, elevating the standards of post-operative care massively.
Through this surgical miracle, giving increased independence, quality of life and manipulative potential to  Lydia, we hope to see her reach solo flight within a year, going on to become, we believe, the youngest person to train to become a pilot in Ghana and possible the first disabled person to achieve that target.

Today in the USA a documentary has been released at Oshkosh Air Venture, the largest General Aviation event in the world, and it not only ‘stars’ but it is also dedicated to ‘Lydia’.  In the footage Lydia can be seen flying Melissa Pemberton, world famous Aerobatic pilot, who visited Ghana recently, and is also interviewed on screen where she declares her desire to fly to rural communities and to tell them through health education how to avoid the challenges that she will live with for her whole life.  I saw the documentary on a pre-release showing in Atlanta this week and there was not a dry eye in the house. 

I am proud to be a supporter of Lydia and of Mr Ampomah, including the whole crew at the RPS and Burns Unit, and I have to say that Alberta, the resident Physio, is amazing in the way she supports the recovery and stretches the body and minds of those she works with – and look forward to seeing the end result of their efforts in the coming months and years. 

Lydia’s story is a credit to the team at Korle Bu, and it has only been possible through the support, financial, physical and emotional from a large team.  Support has come from Ghana, Germany, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Brazil, Mauritius, South Africa, Canada... and it was wonderful to also receive this week financial support from Ghana Civil Aviation Authority towards her surgery.

GCAA will get to know Lydia very well over the coming years, and I hope that you will too; she has already been involved in helping with the work on the runway at Kete Krachi, supported one hundred children on a ‘fly me’ day at Kpong, logged a good number of flight training hours, undertaken first aid training and shows no signs of letting her disability preventing her reaching the places that most able-bodied people consider too hard to get to!

Lydia has already been invited to speak at the Women in Aviation in Africa (WAFRIC) Aviation Conference, to be held in Accra, later this year, and, along with her classmates and mentors, will become another role model that will change the way people think, as well as taking positive change to the rural areas of Ghana. Much as these young people’s lives have been changed by aviation, they are ready to share and multiply the potential of that change within and way beyond the borders of Ghana.

Thank you Mr Ampomah, Alberta and the team, thank you for helping Lydia – and thank you Lydia for being who you are!

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

No comments:

Post a Comment