McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

McMaster surgeon makes a difference one patient at a time

By Laura Thompson
Published: May 6, 2010
Stephen Foster, 2010 recipient of the Teasdale-Corti Humanitarian Award
Stephen Foster, MD, FRCSC
Improving health care in Angola

Stephen Foster was a second-year student in McMaster University’s newly established medical program when he decided to spend the summer of 1971 volunteering in a clinic in Angola.

It was there the aspiring doctor discovered his calling to surgery and experienced the challenges and rewards of delivering medical care in a developing nation.

"It was an eye-opener to me just how much the day-to-day problems and ordinary people’s lives revolved around the lack of access to surgical care," he said. "I fell in love with surgery in 1971. I felt if I was ever going to go back to Africa that was what I needed to do."

Nearly 40 years later, Foster continues to devote his life to improving health care for the people of Angola.

In honour of his contributions, the surgeon has been named the 2010 recipient of the Teasdale-Corti Humanitarian Award by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. The award is given to a Canadian physician whose current practice reflects altruism and integrity, courage and perseverance in the alleviation of human suffering.

"The fun of practicing in Angola has been way beyond anything I would have ever had anywhere else," said Foster, now an associate clinical professor of surgery at McMaster.

"One of the things I’ve fought for over these last 30-some years is to make sure that we don’t divorce primary and secondary care, but that we keep them together and think about people’s needs holistically and try to get at the root of the problem."

Born in Brantford, Ont., Foster spent his childhood in Zambia, where his father worked as a missionary surgeon. He returned to Ontario as a teenager and later graduated as part of McMaster’s first medical class in 1972.

"I think, in many ways, McMaster prepared me to work and live internationally and be a far broader and more generalist physician than I ever imagined I’d be," he said. "I’ve never had the luxury of just being a surgeon, or just being a physician. I’ve had to do a bit of everything."

After completing his residency in general surgery at the University of Toronto, Foster returned to Angola in 1978 amidst a civil war that had erupted three years earlier.  For 12 years, he ran a mission hospital in southwestern Angola, where he trained upwards of 200 nurses. At the same time, he raised a family of four with his wife, Peggy.

"In many ways, we were cocooned to some degree, sheltered by the reality of being an oasis in the midst of a country at war," he said. "Both sides needed us in this mission hospital at Kalukembe, so we were in some sense protected from direct attack, even though guerrillas would raid villages within a mile or two of where we were."

In 1996, he returned to Canada, but was drawn back to Angola four years later. He founded the Evangelical Medical Centre of Lubango in 2006, with support from private donors. The 46-bed teaching hospital includes two operating rooms, a cataract extraction program and an outpatient department, which are staffed by two full-time and three part-time physicians, as well as approximately 40 nurses.

"At times, if you write it all down on paper it looks rather silly," said Foster, the hospital’s medical and general director. "But at other times, you begin to say ‘Well, somebody had to do something to start.’ I’ve felt that was my responsibility and trusting this next generation of people will catch a vision."

Since the hospital opened four years ago, it has provided treatment for nearly 35,000 patients. It has also welcomed medical students, residents and visiting physicians from around the world, including several from McMaster.

A primary goal of the medical centre is to train more doctors and nurses from Angola and keep them practicing in their homeland. In the coming years, Foster will pass on the torch to this next generation of future caregivers. In the meantime, his focus remains on providing the best care for his patients.

"I just finished an operation on a young man who has cancer of the stomach and we were able to remove it and hopefully cure it with resection," he said. "There are several other people on the ward with horrible sundry cancers who wouldn’t have health-care options otherwise. In that sense, one makes a difference one patient at a time."

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