Patient privacy and safety is important every day at Memorial Medical Center, with employees taking great care in the protection of every patient’s rights and our Security team on constant watch, looking out for all our patients, visitors and staff.
But, on Oct. 4, for one patient in particular, Memorial’s own Security team was supplemented by a police escort, several black SUVs, and Liberian and the United States Secret Services.
That patient? President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the 24th president of Liberia, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner and the first female president in Africa’s history.
“It was like something out of the show 24,” said Shari Hill, MSN, RN, director of Baylis Day Surgery.
And, in an operation worthy of Jack Bauer, the whole thing was kept top secret.
“We planned for three to four months prior to her surgery,” Hill said. “It was important to us that patient care be completely uninterrupted, that each patient would receive the same great care we try to provide every day.”
President Sirleaf came to Memorial by way of Saadiq El-Amin, MD, PhD, shoulder and sports medicine specialist in orthopedic surgery at SIU School of Medicine. Dr. El-Amin first met the president when he was doing medical mission work in Liberia. She had been experiencing wrist pain, so Dr. El-Amin gave her an injection. Three months later, at a United Nations conference in New York, President Sirleaf called Dr. El-Amin saying her troubles had flared up again. He flew there to treat her and confirmed that the president would require surgery to improve her condition.
She chose Dr. El-Amin. And Dr. El-Amin chose Memorial for her overall care and surgery.
Admitted under an alias to protect her security and identity, President Sirleaf was provided a complete medical workup in addition to her wrist surgery. She was given a primary care assessment by Dr. Janet Albers, cardiac stress and vascular tests and a mammogram. She also needed an eye exam. Conveniently, Hill knew just the man for the job.
“I called my husband (Shaun Hill, OD, an optometrist at Vision Care), and asked ‘Can you fit the president of Liberia into your schedule on Saturday?’ That was the first time I’d told him who was coming, why I’d been spending so many hours at the office leading up to this.”
These additional medical tests and services were more than great patient care — they were a matter of protecting a head of state.
“This is one of the most influential women of our time and, at 75 years old, people were concerned about her health,” Dr. El-Amin said. “Her critics and detractors could have used the possibility of poor health against her. Now they can’t. She is very healthy, and Memorial played a huge role.”
President Sirleaf spent 72 hours at Memorial. In that time and the time leading up to it, only a handful of people knew her identity.
“All anyone knew was that this was a high-profile patient,” Hill said. “The Memorial and SIU security teams were very helpful. And the Secret Service teams were so impressed, they said they’d come to Memorial next time they needed surgery.”
They were clearly impressed with Hill and her team as well. Hill received a certificate of appreciation from the Secret Service, commending her on these “superior contributions.”
“It may have come to me, but it belongs to the whole team at Baylis,” Hill said.
While Dr. El-Amin said he is touched to care for such a revered individual, he feels the same way about providing that kind of quality care to all his patients and is grateful Memorial has provided a place to do so.
“To practice medicine is an honor,” he said. “I’m humbled to have the opportunity to help people, and it’s nice to align with people who share those same core values. We have the opportunity to do great things, both locally and internationally”.
“Every one of our patients is an individual with individual needs,” Hill said. “We’re known for our concerns regarding patient safety. This was just a different kind of patient safety.”
James Sirleaf, MD, of Albany, Ga., is the son of the president. He praised everyone involved in his mother’s care.
“It feels good when your mother is taken care of,” he said. “And now she’s doing great.”
Just weeks after surgery, Dr. El-Amin attended President Sirleaf’s 75th birthday party in Liberia and performed follow-up care. On his phone, he recorded a video featuring young Liberian schoolgirls singing Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman.” The girls sing gleefully, throwing their fists in the air at the title line.
This is who we helped,” Dr. El-Amin said. “These little girls have a future because of the changes President Sirleaf made in her country, and we got to take care of her and make an international impact. Other dignitaries now are interested in having their care at SIU and Memorial,” he said.
Hill said caring for the president was one of the most exciting things she’s ever been able to do.
“President Sirleaf is changing the world,” she said. “It was an honor to take care of her.”