Undeterred

Current

Michelle Pucci

Resilience helped Dr. Luc Malemo overcome conflict and disaster in order to become a general surgeon, and it’s also what keeps him determined to improve surgical care in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Starting from his days in grade school in the eastern region of the country, where he was frequently unable to pay school fees, Malemo’s education is a story of stops and starts. In university, in spite of receiving an award for top student, he was unable to enter his desired program, medicine. When, four years later, he finally made it to medical school, his studies were interrupted twice, in 1996 and again in 1998, as the Rwandan civil war spilled over the border. After graduating from what is now known as the University of Goma, Malemo had to leave the DRC for South Africa and Uganda to find residency programs. He returned to Goma to work as a surgeon and eventually become the Medical Director of HEAL Africa, which operates a tertiary care hospital and develops training and community-based health care programs. In 2015, Malemo became the director of the first surgical residency program in the North Kivu accredited by the College of Surgeons of East, Central and Southern Africa.

Malemo is one of the first international surgeons selected for the McGill University Jean-Martin Laberge Fellowship in Global Pediatric Surgery, offered at the Montreal Children’s Hospital in conjunction with the MUHC Centre for Global Surgery. He is working towards a PhD in Experimental Surgery at McGill. As a doctoral student, Malemo is collecting data about access to surgical care for mothers and children at hospitals across his home region of North Kivu. Congenital abnormalities like cleft lip/palate, hydrocephalus, anorectal malformation and heart disease go untreated, and lead to mortality and disability because children lack access to surgical care. “If you fix a child within the first months of life, you are changing 60 years of suffering,” Malemo said. “You are transforming a child to become financially independent, to have a chance at getting an education and help develop his country. And if you fix a mother, you are transforming the whole nation.’’ Malemo plans to survey children with unmet surgical needs in the region and to carry out pediatric surgical campaigns in hopes of lobbying government to increase access to surgical care for Congolese children. He is also advocating that the government include surgery in its strategic health plan and improve training of surgeons.

Earning a PhD, he says, will give him the credibility to do this. Until then, he weathers the hardship of being separated from his family and worrying for their well-being on their own at home in a region fraught with violence.

 

In North Kivu schools, an accountant would post the names of students who were behind in paying school fees. Malemo, along with his ten siblings, was on this list every school year. In spite of the frequent interruptions in his schooling, Malemo was always first in his class. He poured his energy into his studies and would later help his younger siblings pay for their educations.

 

 

 

Two weeks before Malemo was set to write his final exam in medical school, the Nyiragongo volcano—located 23 kilometres from Goma—erupted, causing an en masse evacuation to a refugee camp, where Malemo was able to work as a medic, earning the money he needed to take the exam. Malemo returned to university the following year to write his final exam, proving “everything is possible”.

 

 

The Malemo family home had no electricity. After school, children were expected to contribute to household chores, and by the time young Malemo found time for his homework, the sun would have already set. Malemo attributes his success in school to the burning candles that allowed him to study without electric or natural light.

 

 

 

Malemo has teaching in his blood. At 70, his father continues to teach math and is still the headmaster of a high school. Malemo’s mother was a primary school teacher. Their lifelong dedication to education influenced Malemo to pursue his studies in medicine.

 

 

 

In the absence of a sponsor, Malemo’s wife, Stephanie Bake, is unable to join him in Canada. She remains at home, with their four children ranging in age from four to thirteen. Amidst non-stop reports of violence from their region, Malemo worries about their safety, as well as their morale. For the children in particular, he fears trauma. His main tools for checking in are WhatsApp and voice calls, but cell and internet service is limited in Goma.

 

 

 

When he received his letter of acceptance, Malemo was so excited that he booked July plane tickets with only a five-year tourist visa. Without a study permit, Malemo was denied entry into Canada. The permit took months to acquire, and Malemo finally arrived in Montreal in November to begin the fellowship.

 

 

 

Eastern DRC continues to be besieged by daily violence. Civilians are casualties of conflicts between the Congolese army and various militia groups. Machetes are often the weapon of choice. But the knife has a double meaning for Malemo, as a crucial tool for surgeons. Malemo uses the colours red and white to symbolize this paradox.

 

Malemo uses a fidget spinner in his fellowship work at the Montreal Children’s Hospital to distract children during physical examinations. The toy entertains children and puts them at ease.

 

 

French is the official language in the DRC. Malemo studied the dictionary as a teenager to teach himself English. Learning the language allowed him to successfully complete residencies in Uganda and South Africa, where English is an official language.

 

 

With Dr. Kathryn LaRusso, Malemo is one of two inaugural recipients of the McGill University Jean-Martin Laberge Fellowship in Global Pediatric Surgery, which is now seeking applications for future cohorts.

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