Alum Wins Neurosurgery Award for Work in Africa

March 16, 2011

Robert Louis, M.D. (‘07) is the 2011 American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) Young Neurosurgeons Public Service award recipient, for his role in helping to organize neurosurgical humanitarian relief efforts in Africa. He will receive the award at the Young Neurosurgeon Committee’s (YNC) annual meeting in Denver, on April 16.

Louis, now in the fourth year of a seven year neurosurgery residency at the University of Virginia Health System, knew he’d travel to Africa someday: “It’s just something that I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time.’’

The health crisis in Africa was so disheartening that Louis said he felt compelled to do whatever he could do to make an impact. How disheartening?

In the African nation of Tanzania, where he spent five weeks training surgeons, the patient to doctor ratio is hard to comprehend: there are 25,000 health care workers trying to serve a population of 40 million. That is 5.2 workers for every 10,000 people. By comparison, there is one healthcare worker for every 390 people in the United States.

The numbers were even more startling in neurosurgery. Indeed Tanzania has the worst ratio of neurosurgeons of any country in the world: there is one neurosurgeon for every 13 million people, while in the United States there is one for every 65,000.

So he hatched a plan: assemble a team of colleagues who would not just go to Tanzania, perform some surgeries and leave, but train their surgeons to perform some of the neurosurgery techniques plus pre-and post-op procedures needed to care for those patients.

Louis used all of his vacation time to make the trip. Four other colleagues joined him and they headed to Tanzania last August with the medical mission group, Madaktari – Swahili for physician. The group trained general surgeons at two different hospitals and performed over 50 operations—head injuries, spinal trauma and removing brain tumors—and did so with very basic equipment.

“It was important to not just do the operation but to train them, so they could do some of these on their own, which is a big deal,” said Louis.

Louis and his team were also in for a lesson of their own – how to perform high-level surgery with unsophisticated tools.

“Normally on a given day, I use $5 million worth of equipment,” said Louis. “While I was there, we literally had to go to the hardware store, buy screws we thought would work and other things we needed, fuse everything together and then perform our surgeries.”

“As long as you sterilized it, it works. It was an eye-opening experience learning how to do things with a lot less than we’re used to,” said Louis.

Since that training, the program has now expanded to seven hospitals and a neurological residency training program has been created. Medical students from the United States are also tracking the progress of the patients Louis and his team operated on.

Dr. Louis’s fascination with the human skull began at an early age.

“I was 12 years-old. Somebody brought a cadaver brain to our science class and I thought it was the coolest thing”

He admits to not taking his studies as seriously as he should have as an undergrad, but said he was single-mindedly focused on excelling in medical school so he could match into his dream specialty.

His strategy worked.

He published more than 40 research papers while at AUC – more than any student at a U.S. medical school—excelled on his clinical rotations and matched into his first choice.

He is humbled by the YNC’s award: “I knew I was nominated but I was surprised that I got it, because they only give one award a year.’’

His next mission? He heads to New Zealand in June to serve as chief neurosurgical resident at Auckland Hospital, a required year of training for his residency training.