South Charlotte

Charlotte volunteers send care worldwide

This month, a group of about 18 volunteers, led by Dr. Neil Sheth of OrthoCarolina, will travel to Anambra, Nigeria, where they will spend a week giving citizens badly needed bone surgeries and replacements.

Sheth, 36, was introduced to the overwhelming health-care needs of Nigerians upon learning his college mentor at the University of Pennsylvania, Enyi Okereke, spent 15 years making trips to Nigeria to help his fellow citizens.

Okereke had moved to the United States from Nigeria and became a leading orthopedic surgeon, but he never forgot his roots.

With more than 150 million citizens, Nigeria is the most populated country in Africa but is woefully short on doctors and medical facilities. Okereke went back trying to help change the medical system.

Unfortunately, while in Nigeria in 2008, Okereke, 54, had a heart attack. He died before he could receive adequate treatment.

Sheth felt called to continue Okereke's work, and, in researching how he could help, Sheth discovered GEANCO.

GEANCO is a foundation started by Dr. Godwin Onyema - also a native of Nigeria - and his family to improve the lives of vulnerable families in Nigeria. Based in Chicago, the foundation helps coordinate medical missions to Nigeria and is in the process of raising funds to establish a permanent hospital in Anambra to provide health care.

Sheth and his good friend Steve Kirschner, who works for international orthopedic-implant firm Zimmer Carolinas, decided to get involved with GEANCO. They took a five-day trip to Anambra a little more than a month ago to screen patients and decide who would benefit most from surgery when they returned in September.

Neither Sheth nor Kirschner were prepared for what they saw their first day in Nigeria.

"It was the first time I'd ever been to a Third World country, and seeing the people's suffering was very moving," said Kirschner, a Myers Park resident. "When we arrived, there were already 200 people waiting there (to see us)."

According to Sheth, the two performed X-rays that day and spent the night going over them.

One person in particular made an impact: A 20-year-old woman with one leg shorter than the other and a hip in severe pain walked 10 miles from her village to be X-rayed. Unfortunately, she arrived too late and the machine already was shut down.

The girl walked back home and returned the next morning.

Sheth was shocked when he saw her X-rays: her hip was destroyed. There was no cartilage around the bones, meaning every step was causing severe pain.

"She walked over 40 miles in 24 hours from her small village," said Sheth, a resident of South End in Charlotte. "If I had a sprained ankle, I'd probably take a cab down the street.

"There's no entitlement in some of these people - they just realize this is what they have to deal with. These stories are why we should get involved in more tangible ways."

When they return to Anambra this month, Sheth said, they will choose cases that will have the fewest post-op complications, which would burden the strained health-care system. The woman with the bad hip will be among the patients.

"If we can't monitor them safely after surgery, we shouldn't do it on this trip," said Sheth. "Maybe if we make this an annual trip, we can add more facilities that allow us to do more complex cases."

Recently, Sheth and his Charlotte team, which includes an anesthesiologist, nurses, Kirschner and several others, held a fundraiser at Myers Park Country Club. Kirschner and his wife have spearheaded much of the fundraising for both money and supplies.

Myers Park Country Club donated the room, and local businesses donated $20,000 worth of items for a silent auction. The event raised about $30,000, the majority of which will go toward travel costs for volunteers, which averages about $3,500 per person.

Companies like Zimmer and several local hospitals also are donating equipment for the trip.

Onyema and his son, Afam Onyema, co-founders of GEANCO, also will go, along with a few others from outside Charlotte - including a volunteer videographer and photographer to document the trip.

"Charlotte is really on the brink of making a national and international impact," Sheth said. "I think it's important for Charlotte to use its talents to go beyond the city, state and the U.S."