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News / Health / Clark County Health

Medical team makes a house call to Rwandans

Technique for precancerous cells can save lives

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian Health Reporter
Published: May 1, 2011, 12:00am
2 Photos
Dr. R. Scott Rushing, second from left, physician assistant Caroline Fung, center, and Southwest Washington Medical Center nurse Lindsey Lawry, second from right, pose for a picture with a doctor and nurse in Gisenyi, Rwanda.
Dr. R. Scott Rushing, second from left, physician assistant Caroline Fung, center, and Southwest Washington Medical Center nurse Lindsey Lawry, second from right, pose for a picture with a doctor and nurse in Gisenyi, Rwanda. The Vancouver medical professionals taught local physicians to see and treat cervical cancer using a diluted vinegar solution and a tank of carbon dioxide. Photo Gallery

With the help of Clark County medical professionals, African doctors have learned to use vinegar solution and a tank of carbon dioxide to save the lives of women.

Dr. R. Scott Rushing, a gynecologic oncologist, and physician assistant Caroline Fung were among a group of local residents who visited Gisenyi, Rwanda, in early April with a mission to improve women’s health.

With their help, physicians in the small town now have the knowledge and supplies to see and treat cervical cancer before it claims the lives of Rwandan women. Cervical cancer is the No. 1 lethal cancer in Rwanda.

Clinics and hospitals in the country don’t have pathologists to analyze biopsy samples and diagnose cervical cancer. Women diagnosed with cervical cancer don’t have the option of chemotherapy or radiation to extend their lives, Rushing said.

“That’s a perfect storm for this being a lethal disease,” he said. “If you get cervical cancer in Rwanda, it’s a death sentence.”

Fung and Rushing trained a doctor and nurse at the Ndengera Clinic to used a diluted vinegar solution to detect precancerous cells. A swab is used to apply the solution to the cervix. Precancerous cells absorb more solution than healthy cells and turn white, Fung said.

Physicians then use a gun-like device with a hose attached to a carbon dioxide tank to treat the cancer. The flow of carbon dioxide freezes the precancerous cells, Fung said.

The procedure is easy and effective. Ninety percent of the women treated for cervical cancer will be cancer-free for at least five years, Fung said.

In a week, the physicians screened about 80 women and treated 18 who tested positive for precancerous cells.

Rushing also spent some time at the Gisenyi hospital teaching a doctor how to perform cancer surgery. Without a laboratory to test biopsy samples, Rushing said, he had to rely on his clinical impression to remove cancerous cells.

When word spread that an American doctor was in town performing surgery, Rushing said, many women with advanced cervical and breast cancer arrived. Rushing had to tell those women there was nothing he could do to help them.

“It’s kind of unfathomable to know you can’t send someone to chemo(therapy), you can’t send someone to radiation,” Rushing said.

“Here, in this country, you always have something you can try,” he added. “It was disheartening to tell these ladies, ‘There’s nothing we can do for you.’”

In addition to the medical training and care provided for women with cervical cancer, the group provided general medical treatment and humanitarian aid.

Rushing and Fung were joined on the trip by Rushing’s daughter, Kennedy, who is a senior at Union High School; Rushing’s wife, Heidi; Southwest Washington Medical Center emergency room physician Chris Finley; emergency room nurse Lindsey Lawry; and Lawry’s mother, Dawn Swartz.

The group collected toothbrushes and toothpaste from local dentists and raised money to buy goats, pigs and shoes for people living in the town. Kennedy Rushing, Heidi Rushing and Swartz also spent time reading and playing with the kids in the town, Rushing said.

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Scott Rushing and Fung, who work at the Northwest Cancer Specialists’ Vancouver center, said their next objective is to get human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines for the young women in Gisenyi. HPV can cause cervical cancer.

Rushing and Fung hope to acquire the vaccines for 300 to 350 young women in the town.

The pair hope the vaccines will prevent cervical cancer in some of the women, adding to the number of lives saved by the group’s visit.

“I feel like we actually made a difference with this community,” Fung said.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546 or marissa.harshman@columbian.com.

Columbian Health Reporter