Neil and Gwen Wetzig are the kind of people Governor-General David Hurley was presumably referring to when he talked of “ordinary people doing extraordinary things” and announced this year’s Australia Day honours list.
- Neil and Gwen Wetzig have been appointed Officers of the Order of Australia
- The Brisbane couple live in the DRC for six months a year training local doctors in basic, essential and emergency surgery
- The Weitzigs built and opened a training centre for their organisation AusHeal in 2019
In 2003 Brisbane general surgeon Dr Neil Wetzig found himself operating on a three-year-old girl who had been shot in the abdomen by rebels in a tiny town in northern Uganda.
He had travelled to Africa for a short trip offering training to local doctors, not knowing it was going to change his and his wife’s lives forever.
“We did the surgery and it all went extremely well, and her life was saved, it seemed,” Dr Wetzig said.
“There was a big storm that night, and we were staying some kilometres away.
“When I came in the next morning, I found all the staff had left, her drip had run through, and she’d died.”
“I was used to the fact that if surgery was done well, patients would be cared for and they’d survive.”
Dr Wetzig made a journal entry that day that medical care in Africa “has to be better than this!”.
A few days later, he travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where he visited an orthopaedic surgeon he had previously met in Australia.
“I could see the hospital set-up that he had, and he said he’d really like me to bring teams over from Australia and help train the doctors and nurses there,” Dr Wetzig said.
It was to be the beginning of AusHeal, a not-for-profit organisation run by Dr Wetzig and his wife Gwen, who have now been taking Australian medical teams to the Congo since 2006.
Mrs Wetzig said while it was hard to leave behind their five grandchildren, the need was too great to ignore.
“It’s something that we can do together — Neil on the clinical side and me on the admin side — so to be able to support what Neil’s doing in a very practical way has just been very special,” Mrs Wetzig said.
War and constant trauma
In 2015, the couple decided to move to the city of Goma in the DRC for six months of every year to facilitate the training of local doctors to do basic, essential and emergency surgery.
“Really the needs were so great — I had a busy surgical practice here in Brisbane and a lot of people could do what I was doing here but not many people wanted to go and live in Congo,” Dr Wetzig said.
Some of the surgery he does now takes him to the full extent of his clinical capabilities.
They are major operations with limited resources.
“We see a lot of trauma as it’s a conflict zone, there’s a lot of gunshots, and last year we had a hippo bite which was just a horrific injury,” Dr Wetzig said.
But it is the cases of women whose lives have been ruined after botched caesarean sections that distress him the most.
“Even in 2020, many young women in rural areas of the Congo cannot undergo a safe caesarean section and will have their lives destroyed by complications, or, worse still, die,” Dr Wetzig said.
“Even the newborn may be maimed or die, simply because the treating doctor did not understand what they were doing.”
Bridging that gap in practical surgical training is at core of what the Wetzigs do in the DRC.
“Just trying to repair the damage is not sustainable. What we wanted to do is something that’s sustainable and that’s why we started a training program to train these young doctors how to do the surgery, how to do it properly and not to panic when they’re on their own,” Dr Wetzig said.
Mrs Wetzig counts the relationships and the great need for medical training as the reasons to keep returning.
“Every time we come home, we just get on the plane and say there’s so much more that could be done there,” she said.
“But seeing Congolese doctors gain the confidence to then want to train others is what makes it worthwhile.”
One step forward, two steps back
AusHeal built and opened a training centre in Goma in April 2019.
“That’s been a real vehicle for these doctors to feel they have a place where they can go and train themselves and train others,” Dr Wetzig said.
But already the realities of life in the Congo have thwarted a scheduled trip of Australian doctors, after a breakout of Ebola last year.
“Just north of where [we] live, there are rebel attacks that kill innocent victims every few nights, where thousands of children die of malaria or measles each year and over 2,000 people have died of Ebola in just the past 18 months — and yet the outside world knows little of it,” Dr Wetzig said.
Despite all the setbacks, the couple have no plans to stop.
“As long as we’re healthy enough we’ll continue to do it,” Mrs Wetzig said.
Dr Neil Wetzig and Mrs Gwen Wetzig were appointed Officers of the Order of Australia (AO) in the 2020 Australia Day Honours for “distinguished service to the international community of the Democratic Republic of Congo through medical support, teaching and training programs.”