The laparoscopic link - An adventure in Africa from the inside out

When award-winning engineer and product development specialist Colin Dobbyne was invited to be part of a team travelling to East Africa to introduce laparoscopic surgery to Tanzania and across the region, he may have anticipated the huge impact his work would have on the lives of the local people, but he did not realise that the link project, as it came to be known, would have a similar impact on his own life

Teach a man to fish

Working with a clinical team from Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, Colin visited the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre (KCMC), a large referral hospital in Northern Tanzania. His role was to design and install a unique audio-visual tele-mentoring link that would allow surgeons in Northumbria to communicate, with surgical video and in real time, with their counterparts at KCMC. The project’s ambitious aim was to train local surgeons to carry out laparoscopic surgery themselves rather than having to rely on sporadic and short-term visits from foreign surgeons, giving them the skills necessary to develop a self-sustaining laparoscopic programme.

An even bigger challenge

The team arrived at KCMC to find the challenge was even bigger than they had expected. A telephone line patch panel from the 1970s and a tangle of cables in a dusty, disused office would make setting up the essential Internet connection over which the tele-mentoring link would run far from easy. While the clinical team ran laparoscopic training courses for the surgeons and the nurses who would support them, Colin connected leads, experimented with software and developed endless workarounds for the glitches and gremlins that would need to be overcome for the link to work.

History in the making

“I can see the liver being lifted up, with retraction of the gall bladder. The pictures are fine, I can see everything clearly - you’re doing a great job" said Keith Seymour, FRCS (UK) to Dr Chilonga Kondo (Tanzania).

On a wing and a prayer, Colin succeeded, and the first surgery was carried out successfully: Angela Joho became the first laparoscopic patient in East Africa to be treated using a telementoring video link with an expert surgeon in virtual attendance, with constant audio and visual contact, 5,000 miles away. She, and the teams from Northumbria and KCMC, had truly been part of history in the making.

Pamoja tunaweza – “Together we can”

What made the whole experience so life-changing for everyone involved was not only the knowledge that they had improved healthcare for thousands of normal Tanzanians, but also the way they came to love and respect the country and its people, who welcomed them with open arms and supported them in any way they could. From the urns of sweet weak tea doled out by the nurses, to the engineers at the Tanzanian Telecommunication Company who redirected the entire region’s meagre Internet bandwidth to the hospital to allow the first broadcast to take place, everyone was invested in making the link project a success.

The link – An adventure in Africa from the inside out

The full story of the project – “The Link – An Adventure in Africa from the Inside Out” - is now available from Amazon It not only tells the full story of the link, from conception to installation, but also creates an evocative picture of KCMC and life in Tanzania, where day-to-day existence can be cruel and challenging but the beauty of the people and their country always shines through. Meet the book’s characters through Colin’s eyes – the spice girl whose temper is as hot as her goods; the hospital patient who is not all that he seems; and Dr Ali – a man with plan.

The author

Colin Dobbyne is the founder of Cambridge-based product development consultancy Big Blue Solutions, which specialises in disruptive innovation to drive growth. A former technical and commercial director, and then International Executive Director: OR1 Development, at KARL STORZ, he also founded and ran (from January 2005 to January 2011) OR Networks, the company that first established the link-up between Hexham General Hospital and the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre (KCMC). OR Networks was acquired by KARL STORZ Endoscopy (UK) Ltd in 2011.