Dr Atem: Why I ventured in healthcare after returning home
Over two decades of independence war has devastated the health system in South Sudan and negatively impacted the health status of the people. This is something that the National Health Policy (NHP) 2016-2026 noted, as it gave broad approaches that need to be employed to ensure a strengthened health system for improved health outcomes.
At the time the NHP was being made public, over 6,000 km from Juba, one of the sons of South Sudan, Dr Atem Dhal Geu was executing a serious assignment in Liberia. He had joined a World Bank Liberia Project, and his role was to support the Liberia College of Physiology and Surgery as the director for training and surgery.
“Ultimately I helped steer establishment of Faculty of Surgery at the college,” Dr Atem told this writer when they met for an interview at Nile Specialist Hospital where he is the founder and CEO.
But there was more going through Dr Atem’s mind in as much as he was engaged in other assignments outside the country. Despite the comfort that he enjoyed abroad, the idea of one day returning home always flickered in Atem’s mind. He always wanted to return home to help build his country’s health system.
At 57, the first phase of Nile Specialist Hospital is giving him a smile of satisfaction. But it is the story behind the establishment of the health facility that is more intriguing. From a boy running away from the war in 1982, to a veteran surgeon, now 57 and distinguished academician, he returned home to set up a multi-million hospital that will change the face of healthcare in South Sudan.
Born deep in Wunrok village, Twic County, in the present-day Warrap State, Atem he had known nothing, but war had to flee the country when war broke out in 1982.
“I had an uncle who had moved to Liberia. So I moved to Liberia during wartime and attended medical school there. I then moved to Ghana for my internship at the Military Hospital in Accra, then later to Pretoria in South Africa where I specialized in surgery,” Says Dr Atem.
Soon after his stint in South Africa, he moved to Canada – in 1994 for work. In 2001 he shifted to Ghana where he worked until 2007 as a medical officer. From Ghana, he went to South Africa where he did surgery from 2007 to 2013 before going back to Ghana again.
Coming back home
In 2019 he came to South Sudan as a visitor, to see relatives, friends and peers. But this time, he was going to confront a question that had haunted him for some years. The question was why he could not go back home to help.
“This is the time I remembered a discussion South Sudanese living in South Africa had with President Salva Kiir in 2012. One issue that came to the fore was the need for us to come back home and help rebuild the country. The following year another acquaintance of mine, a respected medical scholar, asked me why I had never thought about coming back home. I had planned for my return then, but unfortunately, war broke out and I had to postpone it indefinitely. The 2016 war further complicated my ambition to return,” says Dr Atem.
But in 2020, the tragedy that was the Covid-19 pandemic struck, killing dozens of ‘big people’ according to Dr Atem. Without mentioning names, he says very dependable citizens were felled by the respiratory disease, and this jerked him to a reality that the healthcare system in his country needed to be fixed and this would require the input of every stakeholder.
“When I was reading about South Sudan’s response to the virus, I discovered that there was very little to support tertiary care institutions. There were no intensive care units (ICUs). We did not have even three ventilators. This was a respiratory disease and for such instances, the patient needs mechanical ventilation,” he says.
And that is when he decided to come down and see what he could do to support what the government and other stakeholders are doing. He was targeting people in the market who could team up with him and provide the much-needed financial muscle to invest in healthcare provision.
“What I had in mind was something that would provide tertiary healthcare. Not some small clinic,” he says.
In October 2021, he managed to sign a lease agreement with the Ministry of Health which ceded the grounds where the former John Garang Diagnostic and Medical Centre stood and renovations started in earnest.
Come August 2022, the renovations of the first phase were completed and the hospital opened its doors to the public. Nearly a month later, Dr Atem says they have already done 11 surgeries and nine deliveries, two of which were through the caesarian section.
The first phase has already provided employment opportunities to 55 South Sudanese nationals from cleaners to receptionists, nurses, radiotherapists and administrators. But what disturbs Dr Atem is the worrying lack of confidence in the facilities within the country, as people prefer to fly out of the country to seek medical attention.
“I had a friend who had raised 10,000 US dollars ready to go for Thyroidectomy, which is the surgical removal of all or part of the thyroid gland. His thyroid gland was swollen and thus made him uncomfortable. So I convinced him to come to this facility and have this done for only 1000 US dollars. He agreed to it and I did a successful operation. In the end, he was left with 9000 US dollars that he took back to the village,” he says.
It is no secret that tens or hundreds of South Sudanese nationals, whether in government or business, have been seeking treatment outside the country. This means capital flight, as what could have circulated within the economy leaves the country.
“We have a responsibility to build the confidence of our people in these facilities. But again that would only be possible if they are constructed and equipped to the right standards, and then we get qualified staff with the right exposure and attitude to attend to our people,” he says.
A tour of the facility reveals an elaborate plan by Dr Atem and his partners to put South Sudan healthcare on the map. The hallways are wide enough, well lit by natural light, and the cleaners are on duty all through.
There are imaging machines, a dedicated maternity wing complete with bathrooms separated from the toilets, a kid’s ward with all the cartoons and toys, to modern theatres with state-of-the-art machines.
Dr Atem says that Nile Specialist Hospital will provide the very first ‘presidential wing’. This will be a specially-dedicated wing of the hospital which will be specially designed to respond to the president in an event that he falls sick.
“We do not wish that the president falls sick. But since we are all human, we are designing this wing for use in the event that the president or vice president falls sick,” he says.