As a child growing up in Ethiopia, Yayu Mekonnen only wanted to be one of two things; a doctor or a ninja. “It is a usual aspiration for children where I come from… but I always knew I wanted to help people.”
Now 20 years later, Dr Mekonnen will complete his training at The Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) to become Ethiopia’s first paediatric cardiac surgeon.
“Being here I have been able to see and operate on some of the most complex cases,” he said.
“I always wanted to be part of team like the one here [RCH] and learn from the best. Coming out of this unit makes you stand out wherever you go.”
But the road hasn’t been easy, Ethiopia only has three medical universities that each take about 40 students per year.
“When you go through medical school in Africa you get taught a lot without a lot of resources…; you have to stay ahead of things in the rest of world even though you can’t always practice them with the resources you have,” Mekonnen said.
Shortly after graduating, it was this sentiment that saw Mekonnen travel to Israel with Save a Child’s Heart Foundation. It was during this time he remembered reading many of the papers been released by the RCH and deciding this would be where he would complete his training.
Ultimately he knew he would eventually return home to start the first paediatric cardiac department.
“It was always the dream. I remember my lecturer introducing me to children who had very basic heart conditions and saying if they had access to surgery earlier they wouldn’t be dying. It was in that moment, that I decided this is who I wanted to be.”
There are an estimated 420,000 children in Ethiopia under the age of 15 with diagnosed or undiagnosed heart ¬conditions, many requiring early and basic interventions to survive.
”The need for this is very up there; most cardiac surgeries don’t need the best facilities but if you have the basics than you can do a lot,” he said.
Mekonnen admits he has been exposed to the very best training, however because of funding restrictions in Ethiopia many children will never be able to access the same level of care.
“But for me RCH has completed me as a surgeon…”
Many of Mekonnen’s colleagues at RCH have also agreed to continue supporting him and the development of the cardiac program in Ethiopia through frequent overseas visits.