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Daktari: The Flying Doctors Of East Africa - 2003-04-04

In 1957, three doctors – all plastic surgeons – began what was then called “The Flying Doctors Service of Africa.” They were the first to bring reconstructive surgery to East Africa. Using light airplanes to travel to remote areas, they treated problems ranging from burns to congenital deformities. Now one of those doctors has written a book about their experiences.

Dr. Thomas Rees is the sole surviving founder of the Flying Doctors. His book – Daktari, which means doctor - details their adventures and experiences during decades of work in the bush.

Dr. Rees first visited Africa at the invitation of well-known British doctor, Sir Archibald McIndoe. Dr. McIndoe gained fame for his reconstructive surgery on Royal Air Force pilots shot down and severely injured during World War Two. They, along with Dr. Michael Wood, began what later became known as “The Flying Doctors of East Africa.”

In the decades since their planes first took off, Dr. Rees says the service has grown.

"Well, at the moment, we have a full time staff of around 650. We cover Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, an area of Somalia, southern Sudan from time to time, Ethiopia, Mozambique," he says. "We’ve flown over twelve million miles without a single accident. We’ve done over 50-thousand major surgeries in the rural areas. We have evacuated 25-thousand emergency patients from the bush in East Africa."

He says the medical problems in the bush can be severe and there are no modern hospitals to deal with them.

He says, "Well, they have a tremendous amount of burns in children, for example. They have accidents. They have automobile accidents now. Terrible automobile accidents because the roads are bad and the drivers are driving vehicles that are far from safe very often. They have cancer. They have congenital conformities. And all these things exist, plus some unusual things that we see only in subtropical, tropical countries such as yaws (highly contagious tropical disease marked by multiple red sores) and these weird things that literally eat away the tissues of the face."

He says there are “a fair number of animal bites, hyena bites particularly.” He says the animals often attack people when they’re asleep on the ground, even babies.

To be a bush doctor, he says, you have to be willing do without the hi-tech equipment of modern hospitals. The first time he had to perform bush surgery was an experience he describes as “being dumped in the fire.”

"I learned by doing it," he says. "I had to do it. You’re the only one there. I mean if you don’t do it the patient dies. That’s all there is to it."

In one case, a man had badly injured several fingers and amputation was required. However, no anesthesia was available.

He says, "Most African patients, I found, especially rural patients, are very stoic people. They’re very, very good patients. First of all, they’ve grown up in a difficult time, difficult life. They have an ability – I would liken it to almost a form of self-hypnosis when they get into a bad situation like that. They’re calm. They don’t panic. They have an ability to escape the situation. And I found that to be true so many times."

Dr. Rees says the average African government spends only six to eight dollars per person, per year on medical care. And in this time of HIV/AIDS, a nation’s health budget doesn’t go very far. That’s why the staff of Flying Doctors tries to educate people about behavior change. But he says it’s not always easy, especially when it comes to talking to men.

He says, "Africa is very much a man’s society. So, the root to get to this is through the school children, who then take it home to mother. And then the mother can help to get the men to realize what’s going on. They don’t understand it. They say, “How can sex be causing this problem. My father had sex and my grandfather had sex and in many cases they were promiscuous and they didn’t get it.” So, it’s a very complicated, sophisticated disease to explain to somebody, especially when you’re talking about a bug (virus) they can’t even see or hear or feel."

Despite the challenges, the surgeon says one person can make a difference. He says he’s motivated by a quote from Albert Shweitzer: “It is better to light a single candle than curse the darkness.”

In the epilogue to his book, Daktari, Dr Rees says, “One message rings out loud and clear – whether we like it or not. We are our brother’s keeper.”

Daktari can be purchased at