IU surgeon leads personal mission to send medical supplies to Kenya

Dec. 3, 2013

INDIANAPOLIS -- A special shipment will soon embark from Indianapolis to Kenya -- a package with hundreds of pounds of life-saving medical supplies for the Academic Model Providing Access to Healthcare, or AMPATH, a partnership between the IU School of Medicine and the Moi University School of Medicine.

The supplies are collected by Susan Cordes, M.D., an associate professor of clinical otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the Indiana University School of Medicine, who since 2009 has made nine trips to Kenya to assist physicians. The materials she sends overseas aren't gathered through any formal program; everything is procured through word of mouth and the generosity of colleagues. She is joined in these efforts by her husband, Kyle, an engineer at AT&T in Indianapolis.

"The first time I went to Kenya, I came back with a long list and started collecting things," said Dr. Cordes, who serves as an ear, nose and throat surgeon at Eskenazi Health. "Early on we were looking for cautery units and other supplies to coagulate blood vessels and stop bleeding. These are some of the most basic, essential tools in the OR; I couldn't imagine life without it."

Every U.S. surgeon goes into the operating room with a standard operating "pack" -- a sterilized bag with blue towels, gauze, sponges and other instruments. "Sometimes you use everything; sometimes you use almost nothing," Dr. Cordes said. If an operation is canceled at the last second, unopened packs can end up in the trash. After the surgery, "everything gets thrown away."

In Kenya, where syringes and other basic medical equipment are frequently sterilized and reused, the contents of those packs could save a life.

One of the most important pieces of equipment the Cordeses have sent to Kenya is a "sinus tower," a stack of specialized machines and monitors used to perform endoscopic sinus surgery and provided by Stryker, a medical device manufacturer. Other large supplies sent overseas include an audiology booth, a piece of equipment the size of a small closet used to measure hearing loss, which Kenyan engineers and Kyle Cordes helped install upon a visit to Eldoret.

This year's shipment includes two rolling adjustable chairs designed to reduce surgeon fatigue during long and complex operations. The chairs, originally marked for disposal, were reupholstered at no charge by Ruma Upholstering & Drapery, a Kenyan-owned company in Indianapolis.

The sheer volume of the materials collected by Dr. Cordes has spilled into a supply closet near her office in the Regenstrief Building at the old Wishard Hospital, where shelves overflow with spare parts, wires and highly specialized medical equipment. Some items are kept for years until Dr. Cordes can find the parts needed to make the equipment work again.

"This was all going to end up in the trash," Dr. Cordes said. "It's amazing what happens when people learn you want these things. I've got so many boxes of equipment and supplies. I love digging through huge boxes and hitting on some little nugget or missing piece."

A native of Valparaiso, Ind., and a graduate of the IU School of Medicine, Dr. Cordes first traveled to Kenya as a medical student, when she spent more than two months in a small town named Lugulu. It wasn't until years later that she returned to the country armed with a medical degree and years of experience as a surgeon.

The procedures performed by Dr. Cordes and her colleagues during these trips are thyroid surgeries; goiter removal; sinus, cleft lip and palate repair; and the removal of sinus polyps and tumors of the neck, salivary glands, voice box and jaw. Patients helped include a man named Noah with an 18-pound "keloid," a form of abnormal scarring, hanging from his face. The mass had caused disfigurement, warping the man's nose and facial features and rendering him unable to work or function normally for more than two years. Dr. Cordes said the removal of the tumor gave him his life back.

"The first time I went to Kenya I knew there was a need for doctors, but you never truly comprehend it until you see it personally," she said. "It sounds cliché that you want to be a doctor because you want to help people, but in all reality that is why you do it. I think at some point you think: 'I want to do more.' You want to take your skills and you use them for something greater. But I had also wanted to wait until I had helped more at home before traveling halfway across the world."

Between supply collection, equipment repair and travel arrangements, the Cordeses don't know how many hours they’ve poured into their volunteer efforts for AMPATH -- but they're not counting. When they're not in Kenya, they host visiting physicians through the IU-Kenya program or invite friends to their home to buy handcrafted goods from the Imani Workshops, a place where HIV-positive patients in Eldoret create products to regain their self-sufficiency.

"It's just been something that's grown over the years," Kyle Cordes said. "We've got the time and the capacity to do these things, and it's all felt quite natural -- the more you do, the more you want to do because it feels good.

"When we travel to Kenya, I always say it feels like we're going to our second home. The sights, the sounds, the smells -- it just feels like a place we should be going."