“The first time I went into a neurosurgery was for a shunt revision on a baby, and I could really see a difference after treatment. Surgery was something big. They were going to change a life forever. I loved making a difference in somebody’s life and having a massive impact.”
Dr. Vita Stagno is a pediatric neurosurgeon working as a Fellow at the Bristol Royal Hospital for children in the United Kingdom (U.K.) She is also on the advisory board of CURE Hydrocephalus & Spina Bifida.
“I did part of my training in Italy, but I soon realized that I needed to be more dynamic and spend time traveling. One afternoon I heard about Dr. Warf in Uganda and about CURE’s pediatric neurosurgical hospital there. My boss sent an email, and Dr. Warf replied two minutes later, ‘Oh yeah, she can come in March.’ The future was established in literally five minutes. That’s how dangerous the power of email is nowadays! That was in 2010, and it completely changed my life. I was literally shocked the first time I came to Uganda and faced the burden of hydrocephalus there. It was hard at times, but it was an amazing, positive experience, and it made me realize the impact of conditions like hydrocephalus around the world.”
Hydrocephalus means “water on the brain,” and it is a condition where fluid builds up, causing the head to expand. There are currently two different ways to treat it. The first is by using a shunt, a small plastic tube to bring the excess fluid from the brain to drain into the abdomen. The second is a technique pioneered by Dr. Warf called ETV/CPC—endoscopic third ventriculostomy and choroid plexus cauterization—where a hole is created with an endoscope in a specific area of the brain to help the fluid circulate properly and the choroid plexus is cauterized to reduce the production of fluid.
“The shunt is just a piece of plastic, so it can get infected. It can stop working. If the baby lives far away, it means they need to travel a long way to get it fixed. It’s usually an emergency and it’s quite expensive. When Dr. Warf started at the hospital in Uganda, he pioneered the ETV/CPC technique instead of shunts as the main treatment option. Many babies respond very well, which means they won’t require a shunt. With Dr. Warf and Dr. Mugamba, CURE started a dedicated hydrocephalus program in Uganda that trains surgeons from other developing countries in ETV/CPC. The idea is to spread this technique and procedure by taking it back to their own hospitals where they can now offer this treatment instead of a shunt.”
The ETV/CPC procedure has given hope to many families dealing with hydrocephalus in Uganda. Dr. Stagno travels to provide support for other pediatric neurosurgeons on ETV/CPC.
“The challenge is that sometimes the newly trained surgeons, when they go back to their home institution, they lose confidence with their ability to do the ETV/CPC procedure, or they face other problems such as a lack of nurses and support doctors. So, my role for CURE Hydrocephalus & Spina Bifida is to visit these partner hospitals and help find solutions. In government hospitals, the number of patients is huge! It’s very difficult to even guarantee a bed, but there’s always a way to find some light and improve the care for these children.”
“I work full-time as a pediatric neurosurgeon, so I only have time a couple of weeks every year to do this. I’m not employed by CURE Hydrocephalus & Spina Bifida, but I’m in a small group of people that are part of their advisory board. Two years ago, we sat down around the table and said, ‘Okay we have this doctor in this country, this doctor in this country, and this doctor in this country, so who’s going to visit which doctor?’ Then one doctor was available to go somewhere, and I was available to go and now I’m able to go again.”
“This program was like the light. It’s an amazing opportunity that came in the perfect time in my life,” says Dr. Stagno as she reflects upon her experience. “I can’t work in Africa, but this is what I can give as part of my personal time to feel helpful, to feel I’m part of it. I see that even if my time is limited I can still contribute. Part of the reason I always wanted to go to Africa was because I felt that if I have two hands and two legs, then have a moral responsibility to help those people who need it. I always thought that if God gave me these abilities, he must have put that there for somebody who doesn’t.”
Dr. Stagno finds inspiration in meeting new people and demonstrating love to CUREkids.
“I’m drained. I’m drained from what I’ve seen. I always wish I could do more, but I’m only here for a week. I’m not here permanently. And even if it was permanent, we can only do so much. When you come and visit, you meet lots of new people and, sometimes, you can inspire them. Remind them that we have a responsibility to think of them as our own, our son or daughter, you know? We should love them like they belong to us. That’s the message that I would like to leave every time I visit a new hospital.”
“I’ve seen lots of very unwell patients and they always touch my heart, but I’ve also met lots of amazing people that are working to make things better. In every place, there are things to improve and there is a lot to do, but there are people already committed to do the work, so that’s reassuring.”
She also says that the road to becoming a surgeon is a difficult one, but is incredibly rewarding.
“I feel very privileged to be here. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my parents and how much they sacrificed for me. They only went to primary school and they pushed me to study more than they could do. Despite all of that, it was very difficult. I now feel very privileged as anybody else could be seated here today if they wanted. So, I would really encourage people to pursue their dreams because everything is possible.”
“But now that I’m here, there is so much to do and so much to help and we are such a long way away. I find it overwhelming because I’d like to see no children suffer, but I can’t do it on my own. No one can do it on their own. We can only do it if we work together. That’s why we do need another surgeon, another nurse, another doctor. We need donors and we need people like you because nothing happens if you don’t establish a community of helpers.”