The Coptic Canadian surgeon who is going home to serve the poor

by - 2nd April 2014

A NEW COLLABORATION – in an old mission hospital – will train Egyptian surgeons to serve in rural settings.

Sixty per cent of Egyptian doctors work abroad – but a unique collaboration will fight this trend.

Incredibly perhaps, Egyptian Christian Dr Hanna Sherif is relocating from an élite life in Toronto, Canada to the small village of Menouf in the Nile Delta for the next five years, in defiance of a US State Department warning of ‘risks of travel’.

An acclaimed liver surgeon and academic, Sherif is returning to his country of birth after a forty three year absence to run a new in-country surgical training programme that could help make rural provision the envy of North Africa.

The Harpur Memorial Hospital began life as a floating clinic on the Nile in the early 1900s, founded by Irishman Dr Frank Harpur. 

Offered land by a local sheikh, Harpur set up a tent hospital in Menouf, seventy-five miles northwest of Cairo.  Owned by the Anglican Diocese of Egypt, it is one of a handful of mission hospitals still functioning along the Nile.

The hospital has won high praise from Egyptian Muslim leaders, including the former Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, who said after an eye campaign:  ‘I was touched by the joy of the patients . . .’

His endorsement, together with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s, graces the hospital brochure.

Now Harpur is set to offer Egypt surgeons a state-of-the-art, on-the-spot surgical training programme so sister hospitals can provide similar services in other less populated regions.

‘There is no shortage of surgeons in Egypt,’ said Hanna's colleague Dr David Thompson. ‘There is a shortage of fully-trained surgeons willing to work outside of the biggest cities.’


That’s because the best opportunities are available in urban settings with large university hospitals. Smaller hospitals, some say, cannot offer a comparable scope of training.

Dr Safwat Salem, vice-president of the Egyptian Society of Surgeons and a professor of surgery at Cairo University is skeptical.  He told Lapido. ‘Medicine needs institutional training and cumulative experience to provide a decent level of training.’

At a smaller hospital like Harpur, he said, their case load would not be enough to offer training in all surgical procedures.

‘Students would be better served if brought to established hospitals in the West, and then obliged to return' he added.

But they don’t return, according to pioneer surgeon Dr David Thompson who founded the Pan-African Academy of Christian Surgeons (PAACS) in 1996 to tackle the problem.

Based on almost three decades of African experience, Thompson, the man behind the Harpur development, says that non-returnees are - incredibly - more than ninety percent of those who go abroad.

There are now PAACS surgical training centres in twelve hospitals from Ethiopia to Gabon, which have graduated 36 surgeons through an accreditation partnership with Loma Linda University in the US.  Six will eventually join the programme at Harpur.

PAACS hopes the five-year training programme Thompson and Hanna administer will be fully Egyptian within ten years, offering training to the highest international standards.

Last year, throughout the unrest, and despite having just 75 in-patient beds, the hospital treated 120,000 out-patients, ninety-nine per cent of whom are Muslim.  Its staff is also mixed Muslim and Christian, who have doubled its services since 2009.


Thompson acknowledges Salem’s critique but standard PAACS procedure is to offer instead extensive collaboration with other affiliated hospitals and Western specialists.

Harpur’s resident trainees will benefit from 10-15 visiting surgeons each year, and will spend six months of their programme in large hospitals in Kenya, Cameroon, and South Africa.

In exchange the residents will work at least one year in the handful of PAACS-accredited Christian hospitals in Egypt for every year they are financially supported.

Rural hospitals, including old mission hospitals,are often not well equipped and generally pay low salaries, said Hanna. As such they fail to attract well-trained surgeons.

In addition, Dr Amr al-Shoury, a leading figure in the ongoing partial doctors’ strike in Egypt, the government system pays abysmally poor wages to medical professionals.

He told Ahram Online this drives 60 per cent of doctors abroad.

Thompson believes maintaining the standards of care for the poor under these circumstances in the least attractive districts requires a special commitment.   

‘Christian hospitals will go out of business if they cannot hire well-trained specialists that are committed to their values,’ said Thompson. ‘Ours is to honour and glorify Christ in his command to care for the sick.’

Local leaders give Harpur Memorial Hospital the thumbs up.  A brochure produced by the Anglican Diocese contains a special endorsement by an Imam of a Menouf mosque, Sheikh Raafat Mohammed.

Mohammed says:   ‘The first time I came to Harpur Memorial Hospital, I was admitted as an emergency patient. I was amazed by the treatment I received at this Christian hospital.’