Heart surgeon René Prêtre is a luminary in the truest sense of the word. His extensive humanitarian work has made him a well-known figure to the general public. The 56-year-old hailing from Jura talks about his time spent working abroad and how this has changed the way he sees the world.
Le Petit Coeur has been supporting the Instituto do Coraçao in Maputo since 2006. This partnership provides local specialists with the expertise they need to do their job.
René Prêtre, you could use your free time for leisurely pursuits. Instead, you choose to perform operations in developing countries.
It just worked out that way. When I was working in Paris in 2000, the French aid organisation La Chaîne de l'Espoir asked me whether I wanted to take part in a project. They were looking for surgical teams that would travel to Mozambique once a year so as to ensure continuity of training for the local specialists. When I travelled there with my team, it quickly became clear to me how unique an experience it was. Since 2006 I have been taking part in these assignments yearly. In 2011 we extended our involvement to Cambodia with the Petit Coeur foundation.
Why did you establish your own foundation rather than continuing to work on a project basis?
It was important to me to be independent. I wanted to be able to say no if a project didn't appeal to me. The foundation itself is very small, but things are going well. The Swiss are very generous donors when they are confident that the money really is going to a good cause.
And why did you choose Mozambique?
Chaîne de l'Espoir is active in several countries. The project in Mozambique appealed to me because of the local training concept. My assignments there have since become the ones I enjoy the most. Everything is working out great. The people involved are extremely committed and we are supported from all sides. At the beginning, I was still a bit hesitant.
I asked myself what real use heart operations could be in a country where one half of all children can't go to school; in other words, where prospects for the future are relatively bleak.
And what are the conditions like at the hospital in Maputo?
Very good. The hospital is improving all the time. Also, the simple and intermediate operations we carry out do not require a complex infrastructure: a ward with accurate monitoring where patients can be observed after their operation, sterile operation rooms and a system for sterilising the instruments – that's it.
Are the differences to Switzerland not as large as we think?
They are both large and small at the same time. Here in Switzerland, if a heart patient needs an operation, they get one. We implant artificial hearts and perform transplants. In Mozambique, the children that are considered for non-complex procedures are selected on a case-by-case basis.
Who makes this decision? You?
Yes and no. The local cardiologists and I have agreed on diseases that we are able to cure. But ultimately it is our colleagues in Maputo who decide who is going to receive an operation. The candidates are mostly children who would be cured after the procedure and would be able to live a normal life. Our success rate in these cases can be very high. More complex cases that would additionally require long-term medical care are out of the question. Unfortunately, we can't do everything.
What happens to the children who are not selected?
Their life expectancy remains diminished. Sometimes they die soon after.
That is awful.
It is indeed a tragic that we can't come to the aid of all those children who are inflicted with heart problems. On the other hand, during our assignments we save between 20 and 30 children who otherwise would have been condemned to death within a few years.
It still seems harsh, especially since here all who need help receive it.
Many things are possible in Switzerland. Only in very rare cases are we as heart surgeons left powerless. In my 15 years at Zurich Children's Hospital, I have only encountered two cases of inoperable heart tumours.
During your assignments, do you ever get the impression that your work is just a drop in the ocean?
I'd be lying if I didn't. On the other hand, more and more people are surviving in those countries where we operate thanks to our help. Little by little, a drop becomes a small stream, and eventually maybe even a river. Parallel to this, we have strengthened medicine and created jobs there, and built up a small but effective heart centre. The most important thing we can give to countries like Mozambique and Cambodia is our knowledge, so that the people living there can catch up with the rest of the world. This needs to happen not only in medicine, but in many other areas as possible as well.
Shouldn't more doctors like you who are from rich countries help out in the same way you are?
That's for everyone to decide for themselves.
What do you bring back with you to Switzerland from these assignments?
Many enriching experiences that come from working with my colleagues there on the ground. When I return, I notice how here the medical industry offers everything to everyone. I don't have a problem with that. We have achieved this though research and hard work; I would even go so far as to say that we have earned it to a certain extent. The only thing that troubles me today is the costs involved. We as doctors have to bear a certain amount of responsibility for this problem due to our inability to establish an efficient network. The time where we can offer everything to everyone will likely soon be over. And then my experiences in Mozambique will probably come in handy and I can give everyone tips (laughs).
How old are the children you help?
In Africa and Asia I help children up to age 18. In Switzerland, I perform 15 to 20 percent of my operations on babies who are less than a week old. Some 70 percent of procedures here take place within a child's first year.
It would seem you need very good hands for that.
Yes, and very good eyes and a very good ability to concentrate.
And how do you relax? At a match of your favourite club, Sochaux, which you have supported since you were a kid?
That would be anything but relaxing, believe me. Sochaux has taken a bit of a dive in recent years. That's a shame, because Sochaux is the football club of Peugeot, and spectators and fans are mostly employees who are extremely loyal to the club. Sochaux's fortunes always seem to mimic those of Peugeot itself: if the plant is doing badly, this is reflected in the scoresheet.
You used to want to be a professional soccer player, didn't you?
That was the dream, and then suddenly reality set it (laughs). I was a good player, with lots of energy and smarts on the field Technique was my strength. But whether I really had the stuff to become a pro, I doubt it.
At least as a surgeon you need just as steady nerves as a professional player.
Technique plays a decisive role as well, and you have to be able to perform at the right moment. Emotion has no place in either career. When you need to take a penalty, you can't lose your nerve. The same is true of a heart operation.
Interview: Juliane Lutz