Doctor's Diary, Part VII: Religious, Medical Progress in Khartoum, Sudan

Dr. Bill Frist, the former U.S. Senate majority leader, is an accomplished heart and lung transplant surgeon who trained at Stanford University and was among those who pioneered heart transplants. A Tennessean, Dr. Frist opened the first transplant center in the South at Vanderbilt University. In 1994 he left medicine and was elected to the U.S. Senate. He promised to serve only two terms, so at the end of last year, after 12 years, Dr. Frist retired.

During the four years that he was majority leader, Dr. Frist continued his practice of going to Africa on medical missions, and he began to see that the power of healing can go a long way to improving America's reputation in the world and, more importantly, providing peace and stability in the region.

Dr. Frist is back in Africa, traveling with his wife, Karyn, and Franklin Graham, the president of Samaritan's Purse, and is blogging for

Khartoum, Sudan: Churches and Hospitals

The North of Sudan has persecuted Christians for years. Many observers over the past 25 years have oversimplified the war to be between one of Muslim North against Christian and animist South.

There is truth in that, but the war has been colored by many more complexities centering on beliefs, cultural divides, color of skin and the list goes on.

But what is good news, in large part due to the aggressive diplomacy of America, is the new peace between the North and the South.

Click here to view photos of Dr. Frist in Khartoum.

Click for more photos of Dr. Frist's mission to Africa: Essay 1 | Essay 2 | Essay 3 | Essay 4.

Christians have been denied rights in the North and they continue to be denied many of those rights today. But things are changing for the better. Franklin Graham and I and Dr. Dick Furman spent an engaging and I’d say hopeful evening in Khartoum with the Interreligious Council of Churches.

We listened.

They had a vision.

They had a purpose.

We were told the northern churches have a clear vision to grow the church in the North, persuasively saying the North Christian effort is on the front line and it is the north that most needs the support, because the south is predominantly Christian already.

Franklin was to go meet with President Omar Bashir, so the discussion centered on what he should tell Bashir.

And the suggestions began to flow. The pastors said they need land to build their churches.

They have congregations but the government has not sold them land for construction of a church (although we were told three churches had at least gotten their “permits” for land that day).

The religious Christian colleges need to be certified by the Government of Sudan. They, too, need some help with land.

Click here to watch video of Dr. Frist in Africa.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement is a good document, we are told, when it comes to religious tolerance and freedoms. But the problem is that it is not being fully implemented.

Push for full implementation. The law in the North that says faith-based NGOs and relief organizations (like Samaritan's Purse) can’t be involved in helping Christian churches in the North; this must be changed.

TV is biased against Christian programming, they say. Only poorly watched times are open for purchase. Franklin said he would buy prime time for Christmas services next year (and he would ask Bashir to allow it).

Islam is taught in schools; Christianity cannot be taught. The director of Christian church affairs in the government is a Muslim — he should be a Christian since it is Christian affairs that are addressed. And finally, the constitution gives rights for people in religious places and those rights are not being enforced.

Franklin will take all these demands and concerns to Bashir and will tell him that Samaritan's Purse (SP) will rebuild the 500 churches destroyed by the government in the South. He may even ask Bashir to contribute financially to the rebuilding of these churches since it was the government that brought them down.

Click here to visit the Samaritan's Purse Web site.

It will be interesting next year when I come back to see whether Bashir has delivered on any of Franklin Graham’s requests. My only request of Bashir is to see that the killing stops and let the U.N. peacekeepers in.

But he has no time to listen to that message from me since I have been the Senate leader calling the atrocities genocide (what they are).

Back to medicine. The following day, I was asked to see a sick neonate to confirm the diagnosis of transposition of the great vessels (TGA, congenital heart disease with main blood vessels switched abnormally) at the Ahmed Gasim Hospital in Khartoum North. We go early to go on rounds with the physicians there.

I have mentioned Samaritan's Purse's activity in Darfur when I was writing from there. Recall that SP has been active in South Darfur since August 2004.

Through partnership with the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and various U.N. agencies, SP has a targeted beneficiary caseload of 350,000 for 2007 in the OFDA-supported program. The SP/World Food partnership will assist directly 167,000 individuals with a general food distribution ration in the first six months of 2007.

But what is SP doing in the non-Christian, Muslim North, the seat of control for the genocide going on in Darfur and the seat from which oppression was directed during the civil war?

Well, for the last few years, they have been using health and medicine as a “currency for peace.”

Three years ago, Bashir had asked Rev. Graham why he only helped the South. Franklin said he’d gladly help the North to build understanding and trust. God loves all people.

And, indeed, he did. Franklin and Samaritan's Purse went into action and piece by piece constructed the only fully functional neonatal intensive care unit in Sudan… and I am in it today.

They constructed the room, sent in the ventilators, the ultrasounds, the sophisticated monitors. And for training and service they sent in physicians from around the United States to stay for a period of time.

Professor Ahmed Gasim, enthusiastic, personable and focused, has done a tremendous job with this hospital, which is quite sophisticated with two heart surgeons and a multiservice facility.

But what he is most proud of is the SP-equipped neonatal intensive care unit (he is a pediatrician). The young child we visited clinically had TGA: His pulse, body temperature, oxygen saturations and the typical globular heart on chest X-ray all confirmed.

The problem is there is no surgeon in Sudan who has the training to fix the lesion. The baby will die. Dr Osama, the pediatric cardiologist there, is so saddened; he sees four to five such cases a week. Nothing to do.

Maybe, having seen this, I can go back and talk to my cardiac surgery friends and see if they can rotate a team over here to start teaching the surgeons here how to fix these lesions. It is not that hard to do.

My head is spinning — so many needs — but all are fixable.

I leave the hospital with a commitment to come back with SP. A new shipment of supplies is arriving later today with even better intensive care unit equipment. Things are improving.

The handshakes and hugs with the medical personnel are heartfelt — an expression of the trust and compassion and understanding that reflects two peoples; now we need to expand that to the level of the government…Sudan with the rest of the international community.

Medicine as a currency for peace works. The story I’ve just told is just a slight variation of the story of Lui in South Sudan, where I have been operating for the past nine years.

Lui is a hospital built in a war zone (by SP), that established trust and hope in a people who had seen nothing but despair and destruction. As Lui grew, the bombing of the hospital stopped, the community grew, trust returned and peace reappeared.

Medicine as a currency for peace.

Click here to view photos of Dr. Frist in Khartoum.

Click for more photos of Dr. Frist's mission to Africa: Essay 1 | Essay 2 | Essay 3 | Essay 4.