Five Questions With: Dr. Russell E. White

DR. RUSSELL E. WHITE, a cardiothoracic surgeon from University Surgical Associates, received a $500,000 L’Chaim Prize honoring his work as chief of surgery at Tenwek Mission Hospital in Kenya. / COURTESY LIFESPAN CORP.
DR. RUSSELL E. WHITE, a cardiothoracic surgeon from University Surgical Associates, received a $500,000 L’Chaim Prize honoring his work as chief of surgery at Tenwek Mission Hospital in Kenya. / COURTESY LIFESPAN CORP.

Dr. Russell E. White, cardiothoracic surgeon from University Surgical Associates, recently received a $500,000 L’Chaim Prize honoring his work as chief of surgery at Tenwek Mission Hospital in Kenya, where he intends to use the prize to further his work.

White, a clinical professor of surgery at Brown University, has served as the chief of surgery at Tenwek Mission Hospital since 1997. He said the prize money will provide further training for cardiac surgeons at the hospital, who regularly see children with valve damage stemming from untreated strep infections years earlier. Besides learning to repair valves, the surgeons will also be trained on treating esophageal cancer, complications from tuberculosis and other common ailments affecting people in the region.

Providence Business News asked White to elaborate on his work at Tenwek and how it began.


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PBN: What led to your initial involvement with the Tenwek Mission Hospital?

WHITE: I was born in the Congo, where my parents were medical missionaries from the USA. However, due to civil war in that country, we returned to the U.S. when I was very young, and I grew up in the United States.  As one of six children, my parents impressed upon us all from a young age that most of the world did not have access to many of the things we can take for granted in America – including access to adequate health care.

When I decided to pursue medicine – and specifically surgery – it was with the idea that I might contribute to the training of surgeons in areas of the world with the greatest need. This led me to pursue an institution in Sub-Saharan Africa with a vision of developing postgraduate-level training in health care-related professions.

PBN: What is the greatest challenge in treating patients in impoverished communities?

WHITE: The greatest challenge is developing a strategy whereby adequate medical and surgical care can be provided to a large group of needy people in a sustainable manner. In my opinion, this cannot be done by short-term approaches. Rather, it involves long-term commitment to the development of training programs within the Sub-Saharan Africa region. These institutions, over the long haul, will produce the caregivers who will produce a well-trained, compassionate, dedicated workforce that can provide truly life-giving care to an entire region for generations to come.

This is the reason that I continue to work with Tenwek Hospital and the College of Surgeons of East, Central and Southern Africa. I have been the Kenya country representative for COSECSA for the last six years and have just taken up a new post as the chairman of the education and scientific research committee for COSECSA, supervising surgical training and research for 13 countries in the Sub-Saharan Africa region.

PBN: How will you apply your $500,000 L’Chaim Prize?

WHITE: We have already begun to spend the L’Chaim Prize! Initial purchases have included portable, sturdy, compact cardiac ultrasound machines, ventilators and blood gas analyzers – all of which are needed to adequately diagnose and treat a wide variety of cardiac conditions.

We will also be using this funding for the educational costs of training African cardiothoracic surgeons, echocardiographers, anesthetists and perfusionists (those who run the heart-lung bypass machine during open-heart surgery).

We are also using these funds to leverage more funds for the construction of the Tenwek Hospital Cardiothoracic Unit, which will provide training of health care providers, and direct care for thousands of needy patients every year.

PBN: How has a spirit of humanitarianism toward others translated into your medical career?

WHTIE: I personally feel that God has led me through many different subtle ways in my life to pursue outreach to socioeconomically challenged areas of the world. I am convinced that this desire to bring about an increased measure of social justice and access to lifesaving health care exists within the hearts of virtually all Rhode Islanders in [particular], and Americans in general. I hope that my humble contributions can assist others both in America and Africa to reach across ethnic, racial, gender and socioeconomic barriers to bring true healing.

PBN: Under your leadership, Tenwek has become the “go-to” hospital in Kenya for treatment of esophageal cancer, cardiac surgery and other common ailments in the region. To what do you attribute the hospital’s success in treating and educating a large number of patients?

WHITE: We have seen tremendous growth in our treatment and training programs over the last 20 years that I have been at Tenwek Hospital. I believe that our success has largely been due to a broad vision, which allows us to see what many would see as insurmountable problems (such as esophageal cancer – the most common cancer in Kenya, and rheumatic heart disease leading to the death of hundreds of thousands of young people every year in the region), as instead challenges, which can be met with long-term, persistent commitment to lasting change.

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