A surgeon from Rwanda hopes to open the first burn center in his home country thanks to training he is receiving in Colorado.
The UCHealth Burn and Frostbite Center on the Anschutz Medical Campus is the premier burn center in the Rocky Mountain region.
Rwandan surgeon, Dr. Bernard Umutoniwase, traveled more than 8,000 miles from his rural hospital in Rwanda to Aurora, Colorado, to learn from the pros.
Many people in his area suffer from burns.
“We have house fires and burns from hot liquids,” Umutoniwase said. “We want to have a burn unit which can provide care.”
Without help locally, patients must travel at least six hours by car to the capital city of Kigali.
“If we have a good burn center, we won’t have to transfer patients. We will do our best with new techniques,” Umutoniwase said.
It’s common for people in remote and underdeveloped areas of the world to die from burns that would otherwise be survivable.
“Rwanda is a country of 12 million people, and they have no burn centers,” said Dr. Arek Wiktor, director of the burn center at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.
Dr. Cameron Gibson is also a burn surgeon at the center. He’s one of the specialists mentoring Umutoniwase during his six-week stay in Colorado. Gibson is teaching Umutoniwase new techniques and will send him home with donated equipment.
“We’re trying to make a difference in the world. When someone is burned, they should receive the best care possible,” said Gibson, who has made several trips previously to work with medical colleagues in Africa.
Gibson has worked to improve burn care in Tanzania. He also partners with the Denver non-profit Musana Community Development Project, which supports people and communities in Uganda. Now Gibson plans also to visit Umutoniwase during his next trip to support medical colleagues in Africa.
In the winter in the U.S., people suffer frostbite injuries, similar to burns from hot liquids. Umutoniwase has been surprised by the frigid temperatures he has experienced during his Colorado stay, and he has learned how to treat frostbite.
“So much is new for me. I didn’t know you could get burned from the cold,” he said.
Umutoniwase also has been surprised by the team approach at the hospital, where the medical providers, nurses and other experts do rounds together to visit patients and map out treatment strategies together.
Back at his hospital, Umutoniwase often works alone. If he can’t help his patients, few other experts can.
That’s part of the reason that the Rwandan government and Umutoniwase’s hospital teamed up to pay for his trip to Colorado.
Gibson said great improvements in care can come through partnerships. Spending a lot of money isn’t always essential. Rather, better burn care can be achieved through better techniques and multidisciplinary care. It’s also possible for people in remote areas to use supplies that are easily accessible to them. For instance, here in the U.S., doctors use honey to promote healing.
“We use medical-grade honey. But honey is honey. It has antimicrobial proteins, and it’s high in sugar. It inhibits the growth of bacteria and keeps wounds moist,” Gibson said.
Medical providers should be able to access honey in their countries, even in remote areas. If they don’t have medical wraps to seal wounds, they also can use plants like banana leaves, Gibson said.
“We can improve the care together. They have all the materials they need there,” he said.
Umutoniwase first came to University of Colorado Hospital in 2019 to learn from general surgeons. When he found out about the hospital’s specialized burn center, one of just 63 American Burn Association-verified centers in the country, Umutoniwase was eager to return.
The team at the UCHealth Burn Center is eager to expand its global partnerships.
“I have a passion for international burn care,” Gibson said. “Burn care is something that should be able to be done well anywhere in the world. It comes down to good wound care and good education.”
Interestingly, more effective burn care depends on patience and persistence rather than high-tech approaches, Wiktor said.
“It’s a long game. You plan out a patient’s care for days, weeks, and months into the future. Burn therapy is not quick. It’s slow and methodical,” Wiktor said. “Teaching the right timing of surgeries and when to use certain techniques is just as important as the techniques themselves.”