Conversations with colleagues at Niagara Health led Dr. Jennifer Frendo on a decade-long journey to help people in Guyana.
The Niagara-on-the-Lake physician l
She discovered Doobay had been travelling to his birthplace since 2010 and had established a medical centre there. On that first trip, he treated six patients.
“They were talking about the trips to Guyana,” said Frendo, a family physician who also works in the operating room as a surgical assistant at the St. Catharines site of Niagara Health.
Her interest was piqued and she had a suggestion for them.
“I said they could get more done with an extra pair of hands.”
And just like that, Frendo joined the team on regular trips to Annandale, Guyana, working alongside Doobay, Rammohan and Dr. Faysal Naji, who are all vascular surgeons in Niagara.
During their visits, the team performs fistula procedures to create long-lasting dialysis access points for patients with kidney disease.
The surgical procedures, which connect an artery and vein, and can withstand dialysis treatment several times a week for years without collapsing, aren’t common in Guyana.
Without proper, sustained treatment, which fistulas can facilitate, kidney disease can be fatal.
“I saw people on dialysis and I asked what happens when the body runs out (and dialysis can no longer be done),” Doobay said. “I was told they go home and they die.”
A lack of access to government-funded dialysis is another hurdle Guyanese patients face, he said.
There are also not enough dialysis machines at private, for-profit clinics to meet demand and treatment is costly – about $150 U.S. per dialysis session and $500 U.S. per fistula surgery.
Frendo added that a lack of preventive care contributes to a higher rate of kidney and heart disease in Guyana, something the group hopes to change through their work at Doobay’s clinic in Annandale.
“It’s something that is basic. They’re not getting that down there,” she said.
On their latest trip, the doctors were able to help 34 patients over just three days from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2.
“We basically hit the ground running. We take everyone who needs help and keep going until everyone is taken care of.”
While it’s difficult to see people in need of care that many Canadians may take for granted, the work is very fulfilling, she said.
“Without this, people will die. It’s that black and white,” she said. “There’s a lot of grey areas in medicine, but this is not a grey area at all.”
But the situation is improving.
The physicians have secured more decommissioned equipment from other hospitals, including mattresses from Niagara Health when the health system switched to gel surfaces earlier this year.
A group of physicians from McMaster University also donated $50,000 to buy filters for dialysis machines.
Nephrologists from Mac regularly make the journey to do patient assessments and followups. The group also fundraises by participating in the Toronto Marathon each October.
Since that first trip 13 years ago, that patient list has swelled to 135.
Doobay has since set up dialysis clinics in two other Guyanese communities with a third in the works, and opened his own operating room, reducing reliance on government hospital space to perform fistula surgeries.
The Niagara Health team used it for the first time earlier this summer, doing 25 procedures over one weekend.
Doobay, meanwhile, has been undeterred in getting people access to critical health care.
“Helping someone with dialysis and contributing in whatever way we can, you’re saving a life,” he said.
“There’s no better feeling than saving a life.”