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Sierra Leone Doctor Returns from US to Improve Health Services

Dr. Sylvester Nicol
Dr. Sylvester Nicol

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Sierra Leone's health system has suffered from decades of corruption and the destruction wrought by a long civil war. The few functioning hospitals are under-staffed and short on medical supplies and equipment. Now a new medical center provides high quality services all under one roof. In this edition of Making a Difference we introduce you to Dr. Sylvester Nicol.

Freetown, Sierra Leone's bustling capital city, sits on the slopes of mountains that slide steeply into the Atlantic Ocean. During ten years of civil war, Sierra Leone's institutions crumbled from widespread corruption and the mass exodus of the country's  professional class. None more so than the health sector. Today a population of 6 million relies on the services of just 77 doctors.

Many Sierra Leoneans in the country's diaspora are now considering coming back.

One of the few to make the leap is Dr. Sylvester Nicol.  He moved home in 2008 after living abroad for 14 years.

He left behind a successful medical practice in the United States to establish a unique facility in Freetown.

"The concept was to have as many services under one roof as possible," Dr. Nicol explained. "This is a common concept elsewhere, but in Freetown usually after you see a physician you might have to go elsewhere for a lab test, then somewhere else to get an x-ray."

Dr. Nicol built and manages the medical center which offers out-patient, laboratory and x-ray services, a pharmacy and more sophisticated services such as ultrasounds and specialized lab work. The center also has an intensive care ward. "What I love about my job is the fact that people can get better and, if you do it well, quickly. It is very very rewarding," he said.

Dr. Nicol believes that a strong private sector is key to social development in his country. He believes his medical practice will convince others in the diaspora to move back home and rebuild their country.

"I think it is an incentive for people to come back especially the middle class folks who are the ones who drive the economy. They need and they are used to a certain type of healthcare," he said.

Sukai Alghali moved back to Freetown from London two years ago. She has trouble with high blood pressure but says the other health facilities in Freetown are not up to standard.  "The center is a God-send. I think for the doctor to leave America to come here, you know, it must be - he must have the love of the country," she said.

Although consultations cost only $15, many Sierra Leoneans cannot afford the  services at the medical center. But Dr. Nicol treats everyone who comes his way and tries to balance his business between those who can and those who cannot pay.

"In Africa you have to have services for people who cannot pay the 50,000 leones [$15]. Just as a medical person, you treat people who come through your door and you worry about being paid later," Dr. Nicol said.

It's not easy to operate such a center in Sierra Leone. Clinics here must cope with regular power cuts, a lack of trained medical personnel and drug shortages.

"It was a huge challenge," Dr. Nicol stated. "But like any significant thing that you do, it has to be challenging for it to be rewarding."  

Dr. Nicol has no regrets and no plans to move back to the United States.

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