By Jamie Williams, Editor of UNC School of Medicine’s Vital Signs
By formal training, Anthony Charles is a trauma surgeon. By experience, he’s a diplomat.
Charles leads the Malawian Surgical Initiative, a partnership between the Department of Surgery at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe, Malawi, and the Malawi College of Medicine.
On Dec. 5, 2015, the first class of surgeons graduated from the five-year surgical training program. On that day, the number of trained surgeons in a country of 15 million people grew by six – to a total of 20. The goal is that these surgeons stay in their home country to serve their fellow citizens.
Leading the initiative requires Charles – also an active trauma surgeon – to navigate the challenges that come with coordinating a program from another continent and closely collaborating with a foreign government.
“This program is entirely built on trust, which has contributed to its success, but also makes it fragile,” Charles said. “We’ve done a lot of good, which I think has bought us some grace and goodwill, but all it takes is one person going down there and saying the wrong thing, and it can just come crashing down.”
For eight years now, Charles has kept that from happening.
“He is the glue,” said Bruce Cairns, John Stackhouse Distinguished Professor of Surgery at the UNC School of Medicine and director of North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center. “The reason the program is successful is because of his efforts. In Malawi, our involvement is a socio-political issue as much as a health care issue. Each linkage we make there has to be through an individual; a committee won’t work. And what we have with Anthony is someone who has the unique capacity to connect all of the dots.”
An International Perspective
Charles was born in Germany to Nigerian parents, who met while his father was studying medicine in Heidelberg and his mother working as a nurse at a military base. When Charles was 3, the family moved back to Nigeria, where his father began a successful career as a pediatrician, educator and administrator.
His father became medical director of Guinness’ philanthropic health outreach efforts in Nigeria. Guinness Beer is a national favorite in Nigeria. In fact, the first Guinness brewery outside of the United Kingdom was actually built in Nigeria’s largest city – Lagos. One of the perks of working with the beer giant was the opportunity for Charles’ father to send his children to boarding school in Ireland.
From the ages of nine through eighteen, Charles lived and studied in Ireland, before returning to Nigeria to attend medical school at the University of Lagos. Residency training took him to London where he met his wife, a native of California. When her time was up in London, Charles went with her to Los Angeles, completing his general surgery residency at Martin Luther King Medical Center, an inner-city hospital with an abundance of trauma cases.
After a trauma and critical care fellowship at the University of Michigan, Charles arrived at UNC in 2006. Central to his progress in academic medicine, he said was the decision to pursue his master’s degree at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.
Through his public health studies, Charles became aware of the infectious diseases work UNC was leading in Malawi. He traveled to Africa to see it for himself and learn how he might become involved.
Learn more about the Malawian Surgical Initiative and read the full story on the UNC Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases website.