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Heart surgeon gives up hols to operate on Afghan refugees in Pakistan

Family holidays are taking a back seat to saving lives for a Swansea surgeon who spent his summer in Pakistan operating on poor people including Afghan refugees.

Morriston Hospital cardiothoracic consultant Syed Saeed Ashraf worked seven days a week for six weeks in the National Institute of Cardiovascular Disease (NICVD) in Karachi.

He operated six days each week, mostly on young people, in their 20s and 30s, with rheumatic valvular diseases – heart conditions now comparatively rare in the West.

Professor Ashraf (left in photo) at work in the Karachi institute

Then, every Sunday, he would teach and train young local and Afghan cardiac surgeons new techniques which they would put into practice under his supervision the following week.

Pakistan-born Professor Ashraf used his entire annual leave entitlement with Swansea Bay for his humanitarian visit.
It was not the first time he has been involved in operating and training in developing countries. And it will not be the last.

“I couldn’t go for the last three years because of Covid. They kept asking me to come back and in May I went there for two weeks,” he said.

“Normally during July and August I go to see my family, who live in the United States. But this summer I went back to Pakistan to do humanitarian work.

“The surgeons are trained but there were so many patients that they just wanted an extra pair of hands, and some expertise, which I provided.”

Professor Ashraf said Pakistani people had access to heart surgery but it was not available uniformly around the country.
Centres were mainly in the big cities, like Karachi. People from rural areas had to travel to these centres, creating high demand.

Right: Professor Ashraf is now back at work in the Cardiac Centre in Morriston Hospital

This became even more poignant during the recent catastrophic floods, where such centres also became hubs for rescue services.

Professor Ashraf also operated on Afghan refugees whose healthcare is provided free of charge in Pakistan.

There are more than a million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan but many millions more who are unregistered.

The situation has been exacerbated by the withdrawal of US and NATO troops and the Taliban takeover of August 2021.

“I was told that with my visit this time it would be mostly local people and Afghan refugees I’d be operating on,” said Professor Ashraf. “I wanted to do it for them because they are desperate.

“I could not even speak the Afghan refugees’ language. I utilised an interpreter when I talked to them.”
Professor Ashraf and the surgeons in Karachi operated on two patients a day, six days a week, during his stay there.
Each Sunday was spent in a so-called wet lab, where he taught the surgeons new techniques using a bovine heart. They then used these techniques for real while operating during the following week.

Most of the surgeons work in the NICVD, with a few in peripheral hospitals, to which they have returned along with their enhanced skills.

“The response was overwhelming to be honest. I’m still getting cards and messages virtually every day,” said Professor Ashraf – with one of those messages acclaiming him as ‘truly one in a million’.

Professor Ashraf and the surgeons during one of the Sunday training sessions in the NICVD

“It worked out very well. It was very hectic and tiring, but very, very satisfying, no doubt about that,” he said. “I am very grateful to my department for letting me take all six weeks in one go.”

Professor Ashraf did his basic medical training in Pakistan then left for the UK where he trained in cardiac surgery at various hospitals.

He described his visits as a way of giving something back – and not just to Pakistan. He has previously shared his expert knowledge with surgeons in other developing countries too.

“I have been involved in these trips for the last eight to 10 years, but it was not on a regular basis and for a short period – a week or two,” he said.

“The positive feedback I received from patients and surgeons this time around has encouraged me to make it a regular event – shorter but more frequent, again using my annual leave.

“I would recommend other cardiac surgeons should do this. We don’t know how lucky we are to have such a good healthcare system over here.

“Wherever there is a requirement for heart surgery in developing countries, people from the Western world should go.”

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