Interview with Sister Rita Schiffer – Winner of the Else Kröner Fresenius Award for Development Cooperation in Medicine 2022

This year the Else Kröner Fresenius Award for Development Cooperation in Medicine is being presented to Sister Rita Schiffer from the Medical Mission Sisters, Medical Director of Attat Hospital in Ethiopia, for the project “Sustainable Surgical Care in Attat”.
Sr. Rita Schiffer

Sister Rita Schiffer, congratulations on receiving the Else Kröner Fresenius Award for Development Cooperation in Medicine 2022. As the medical director of the hospital in Attat and a gynecologist, you are responsible for surgical gynecology and energency surgery operations. What does your typical workday look like?

I start at the hospital around 8 a.m. with organizational arrangements. The morning doctors meeting is at 8:30 a.m., on some days with those involved with surgery, on others with internists and Health Officers. Depending on the weekly duty roster, then it’s off to the Outpatient Department or rounds to the wards or the delivery room.
The main focus of work in the morning lies in the Outpatient Department. I operate in the afternoon, and in between I head for the Outpatient Department, which officially closes at 5 p.m. The  documentation of outpatient files and operation records follows from 5 to 6 p.m. If I’m on night duty, on-call readiness begins at 5 p.m. until 8 a.m. in the morning.

You have been working in Ethiopia since 1997. Which experience was most important to you during that time?

To me, the most formative experience is experiencing how most people here deal with personal misfortunes or disappointments. They cope with their often harsh lives through optimistic confidence, faith in God, and hope.

Would you please describe your project’s sustainable goals to us in greater detail?

Our main objective is to provide achievable, qualified and reliable healthcare for ordinary people.  Alongside routine care in the Outpatient Department and on the wards, this is shown in the constant readiness for operations, in the low-threshold (subsidized) selection of operations offered, for example for prolapse surgery, and in the free advising and treatment of pregnant women and obstetrical assistance. For women with risky pregnancies we were able to use the model of a “Maternity Waiting Home” on the hospital grounds to achieve pioneering work in the country.
A second key focal point is teaching and advanced training. The hospital has been the practical- training site for nurses, midwives and MTAs for decades, and was a location for learning and training in surgery, especially a few years ago. What’s more, we make efforts so that our own staff receives advanced training and actively support talented adolescents from surrounding villages.

The award is endowed with 100,000 euros. What will you use the prize money for?

One urgent need is an increase in wages for our 200 employees on staff, because the momentary rate of inflation in the country makes a normal livelihood impossible. Then, of course, to finance the educational and advanced training for staff. In addition to that, part of the special flooring in the surgery wing has to be renewed. We are going to use the remainder particularly for buying intravenous infusions, surgical suture material, sterile surgical gloves and non-sterile latex gloves. Over the last three years the prices for them and many other medicinal products have increased sixfold. It is not possible to pass these costs on to our patients on an identical scale.

Thank you very much

This year’s award-winning project was nominated by the Austrian aid organization Jugend Eine Welt. Reinhard Heiserer, managing director of Jugend Eine Welt, reports on the work together with Attat Hospital in an interview. 

Mr. Heiserer, in your opinion, what is that makes the project “Sustainable Surgical Care in Attat” so special?

After being founded by Dr. Anna Dengel, one of the first women to become a physician in Austria, the hospital in Attat became well known far beyond its local realm for its particular focus on obstetrics and surgery. Over 3,000 births are currently being handled and supervised each year, and the availability of the surgical services offered increases the chances of survival – especially for many mothers and children in the event of complications during pregnancy and delivery. This ensures that a joyful event doesn’t turn into one that is terribly sad! And to me, sustainable surgical care also means that trained healthcare staff are on hand to support the surgeons, both men and women, in the course of their important task. Sister Rita is a pioneer here, too: For many years now, she and the men and women on her staff have made a large number of urgently needed practical internships available for prospective medical personnel at Attat Hospital. Trainee positions like these often rely merely on theory and, from the practice aspect, prepare staff insufficiently for their upcoming responsibilities.
Due to Sister Rita and her predecessors, the people around Attat can count on competent surgical care for more than 50 years. Ever since the founding in 1969 there has always been a female physician on-site who was able to perform urgent operations. In combination with a comprehensive educational program for hygiene and nutrition, over the last decades this offer has turned the hospital into a beacon for medical assistance and human support.

How does the aid organization Jugend Eine Welt support the project on-site?

Together with the Austrian association “Freunde Anna Dengel”, our organization has supported the hospital and the Medical Mission Sisters for many years. Besides wide-ranging networking work and smaller-scale relief activities, in recent years the focus has been on strategic funding issues. Analyses conducted by professional staff specialized in hospital modernization along with research on funding entities kept us quite busy. What is probably the greatest success is your selection of the project and its manager, Dr. Rita Schiffer, as the award-winner in 2022.
Every bit of public awareness helps us and the hospital to raise additional resources for unresolved missions and projects in order to develop the hospital further on a continuous basis.

What do you wish the project for the future?

My greatest wish would be if Sister Rita and Attat Hospital could obtain their own access to a secure supply of medical products and medical consumables in Ethiopia. Unfortunately, for some products the local supply situation is very poor and things frequently have to be improvised. It’s a shame that the state healthcare sector in Ethiopia only fulfills the expectations placed on it to a limited extent. And on the whole I wish that Sister Rita and her fabulous team can continue to build upon international support and publicity to be able to help local people in need of emergency medical care. Supporting them relieves distress, heals mishaps, and promotes health.