Brain surgeon with a heart

Neurosurgeon and humanitarian Professor Michael Haglund volunteers in places which desperately need medical help.  But finding himself on a mission in Singapore was a bit of a surprise.

Michael Haglund

Duke University neurosurgeon and humanitarian Professor Michael Haglund found himself on a mission in Singapore to transform patient care in Southeast Asia.

Professor Michael Haglund never really expected to be in Singapore.   

He has done volunteer work in Uganda, and before that, Ecuador. “But I never thought I’d find myself in Singapore,” said the Professor of Surgery, Neurobiology and Global Health at Duke University’s School of Medicine.  

Yet in October of last year he was indeed here on a mission, although the mission went beyond Singapore. He was here to explore how to help transform patient care in Southeast Asia.

The road to Mandalay

Prof Haglund's trip here was the culmination of discussions that began after a 2018 talk he gave in Durham, North Carolina, USA, to visitors from the SingHealth Duke-NUS Global Health Institute (SDGHI).

The Singapore party was exploring ways to grow their regional presence and develop similar programmes in Southeast Asia. The SDGHI, the National Neuroscience Institute (NNI) and SingHealth discussed such a programme and the possibility of Prof Haglund making an exploratory trip to Mandalay, Myanmar, while on his way to Singapore for a conference. 

In Mandalay, Prof Haglund, together with Dr Jai Prashanth Rao and Ms Jeannie Lum, from NNI, found that although hospitals there had modern medical equipment, improvements were needed. For instance, hospital benches were often used as beds, which were not only uncomfortable but dangerous for patients suffering from bleeding in the brain.

“Mandalay has different needs from Kampala. Duke Health, NNI and SDGHI have an opportunity to raise the level of neurosurgery and healthcare training in Myanmar, in a way that will make a tangible difference and empower healthcare workers,” he said.

He sees the possibility of NNI setting up something similar to Duke Health’s Division of Global Neurosurgery and Neurology, which leads medical missions, training programmes and collaborative research to hospitals around the world.

He thinks this will cement the SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre’s position as a regional leader in neurosurgery expertise, and that SDGHI can play a pivotal role in fostering such collaborations.

The work in Uganda

His work in Uganda started in 2006, after a pastor from there approached him, asking how he could support neurosurgical care in the country. At the same time, Prof Michael Merson, founding director of the Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI), was building DGHI’s global network.  

Prof Haglund made an exploratory trip to Kampala, where he identified a dire need for medical equipment and expertise. So, he started to train doctors in complex brain surgery techniques and giving hospitals access to medical equipment from Duke Health.  

With his help, local hospitals got more than 104 tonnes of medical equipment and about  USD$14 million worth of supplies from Duke Health, under the Duke Global Health Placement of Life-changing Usable Surplus (PLUS) Programme.  

He also designed a course to train Ugandan general surgeons in life-saving neurosurgical procedures, and organised 20 surgical camps led by Duke Health to perform surgeries and train Ugandan medical teams.

Prof Haglund then started – and still co-directs – Uganda’s first neurosurgery training programme, which has doubled the number of neurosurgeons in the country. He has also obtained research grants to build surgical and care capacity.

The work continues, as Ugandans watch this tireless humanitarian, fuelled by his Christian faith, and with his medical expertise, substantially change the landscape of neurosurgery in their country.   

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