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NAIROBI - 27 Jan 2021

Feature: The life and times of a South Sudanese Christian Surgeon in Kenya

Dr. James Joseph Apollo, Surgeon at Kijabe Hospital, Kenya [Photo: Radio Tamazuj]
Dr. James Joseph Apollo, Surgeon at Kijabe Hospital, Kenya [Photo: Radio Tamazuj]

After seeing his sister succumb to jaundice and witnessing expectant mothers die due to lack of health facilities, Dr. James Joseph Apollo made a resolve to pursue medicine, a journey he perceives as a service and not just a profession.

Radio Tamazuj met Dr. James Joseph Apollo, a South Sudanese surgeon, one of the General Surgery Residents under the Pan African Academy of Christian Surgeons (PAACS) program at the Kijabe Hospital in Kenya. 

Born and raised in Shendi, a small town in northern Sudan, little Joseph started his elementary education in Sudan before joining Upper Nile University to study medicine. 

He has worked in different health facilities and hospitals across Sudan and South Sudan including the Juba Teaching Hospital, the country's main referral public health institution.

Experiencing first-hand the health challenges facing South Sudan and especially a shortage of surgeons, Dr. Joseph later joined the Pan African Academy of Christian Surgeons (PACC) based in Cameroon to expound his knowledge and experience training as a surgeon. But his stay and study in Cameroon were cut short when conflict erupted there.

“I requested to be transferred where I can finish my training and my kids can go to school. So, they offered me several places but in the end, they agreed I was moved to Kenya. And then Kijabe is a faith-based hospital, for me, it is a center of excellence. They welcomed me, they have the PACC program and I became one of the residents of Kijabe Hospital,” he said.

Among his close friends and colleagues, Dr. Joseph is fondly referred to as the “Gentle Giant”, he explains why. “The name Gentle giant came from a professor from the United States of America. Because I am huge, they expect me to be very harsh but I think he realized I am very kind with the tissues as a surgeon and handling them and that is why he came up with the name Gentle Giant and the name has stuck.” 

Currently living and working in Kenya, his dream of going back home and serving his people remains his highest calling.

"My heart desires to go back to South Sudan because I believe as a country, we are not producing a lot of surgeons compared to Kenya. The need in my country is greater and sometimes I say I have these skills and I'm supposed to give it to my people, I have to give back to my people," he said. “But sometimes with the difficulties on the ground there, the difficulties for your families and my kids to go back to school and the instability in the country, I think all this contributes, I have to wait a bit."

With a fragile health system, the medic says it is not all gloom. He says South Sudan is blessed with many health professionals with different skills and expertise, who if given a chance, could transform the country’s health system.

"We have the capabilities and we have the skills and consultants who can run surgical and even other medical training needed. Of importance is that policies are developed and implemented. The ministry of health needs to push and make sure this training is implemented," he said.

Recognizing that many South Sudanese professionals, especially doctors are abroad for different reasons, Dr. Joseph insisted that they all have a duty to make the country better.

“I have asked the doctors living in the diaspora to go back and help build the country because nobody will come and help us build the country for us, we are the ones to build it," he said. 

Work-family balance

 With tight schedules and being on call most of the time, Dr. Joseph admitted that doing his best at work and being the best husband and parent has not been so easy. 

A family man, Dr. Joseph says an understanding spouse, the right environment, and your attitude can help manage this challenge.

“I can tell you it is very challenging. You need to have an understanding spouse if you are a doctor and your husband is not a medic, because you see it is a call that you need to rescue someone’s life. And you can’t delay or deny or not pick the call and go and help,” he said. “In the training, you have to be a good resident, be patient, operate, do regular follow-ups in the morning evening, and night at the same time if you are married, you need to be a good husband, a good friend to your wife, and you need to be a leader.”

He pointed out that many times they get overwhelmed with either work or family-related issues and they become distracted and frustrated, but the satisfaction of putting smiles on their patient's faces, they strive on.

Faith and medicine at work

In the training, residents like Joseph get to undergo both spiritual and surgical training. The spiritual aspect according to the medic is key as it offers patients hope for improved health and healing.

“Any PAACS graduate is trained less or more like a pastor. You talk to your patients about the good news, you give the word of God, pray with them before the operations and in certain cases after the operations, we also pray each time," he said.

He says they have integrated their spiritual teachings into their everyday work and it has had a tremendous effect on the patients.

“We recall a patient who had 13 operations and each time we expected the patient will be out of that dead. She is Kenyan and is still alive and doing well. Each time we see her, we see God’s mercy and compassion,” he adds.

As a parting shot, Dr. Joseph urged young aspiring surgeons and medics to pursue their passion despite the many challenges the country faces.