Madagascar’s Teaching Surgeon Passes on Her Skills, Her Dream

In the often male-dominated field of medicine, Professor Fanjandrainy Rasoaherinomejanahary is part of a legacy of female healers.

“I am the daughter of a nurse,” said the Malagasy surgeon and professor of visceral surgery, who goes by Prof. Fanja.

As a young girl, Prof. Fanja had a unique vantage point in the field of medicine, observing as her mother worked in a surgical ward. As she watched her mother help patients on their way to healing, a dream began to grow in Prof. Fanja’s heart.

“When my mother treated people after surgery, and the next day they were cured, all this motivated me,” she said.

Upon the foundation her mother built, she began to write her own chapter. Her mother cared for patients after the surgeon operated on them. Prof. Fanja wanted to go one step further. She wanted to be the surgeon.

After years of hard work and study, and through a longtime professional partnership with Mercy Ships, Prof. Fanja has become that surgeon – and she’s not stopping there. She wants to lift up other surgeons and build the capacity of her island nation, so patients can continue receiving healing long after she’s gone.

A Mother’s Sacrifices 

As a woman working her way to the top of her field in Madagascar, Prof. Fanja had to overcome many barriers – and make painful sacrifices. 

“It wasn’t easy to get to this stage,” she said. 

She took a year off from school when she had her first child. Her mother then cared for her son when she returned to her studies. She went on to have two more children while advancing in an intensive and demanding career. 

“As time went by things stabilized, family life was more balanced, and so was my working life,” she said. 

Prof. Fanja said her family was always happy to support her, because they understood her motivation in becoming a surgeon. She wasn’t just striving to fulfill her own ambition. 

“The end goal wasn’t just for my benefit,” she said. 

Even with so much support, Prof. Fanja had to give up precious moments to pursue her dream – and become qualified to heal. When she traveled to Paris to further her specialization, she had to leave her two young boys at home with her family. 

“It’s the sacrifice that really left its mark on me,” she said. 

She then had her third child – a daughter. Even with three little children, Prof. Fanja stopped at nothing in her quest to further access to safe surgery in Madagascar. While juggling the demands of her busy professional life with a beloved family, she learned to make the most of every moment. When her children began attending school, she made a commitment to drop them off every single day.  

She didn’t drive the car, though. Instead, she soaked up those precious slivers of the morning from the back seat. 

“While one of them was breastfeeding, the other was getting ready for school,” she said. “I made sure I cuddled them and got them ready … before I headed to the hospital.” 

Prof. Fanja’s children still treasure those morning drives. 

“They can’t concentrate at school if mom doesn’t drop them off,” she said. “It gives them confidence. It gives them pride.” 

The Next Generation 

During her many years of training, Prof. Fanja learned from skilled teachers in Madagascar. 

“I wouldn’t have become a professor without them,” she said. “And that’s what I’m trying to pass on to our descendants, those who are learning.” 

As part of her ongoing quest to improve her skills, in 2015, Prof. Fanja had the opportunity to partner with Mercy Ships while the Africa Mercy® was docked in Madagascar.  

“I remember it really well,” she said. “The Mercy Ships team was here to train us on basic surgical skills acquired through simulation.” 

Prof. Fanja took a course from Mercy Ships at her workplace, Joseph Ravoahangy Andrianavalona Hospital (HJRA), a leading surgical center and the largest hospital in Madagascar. Afterward, she was trained to be a trainer. She helped Mercy Ships teach other Malagasy students in 2016.  

“From then onwards, they always called upon me to teach surgical simulation,” she said. 

Prof. Fanja has taught in the nations of Benin, Cameroon, Guinea, and Senegal; and of course, in her home of Madagascar. Today, Prof. Fanja performs surgeries by day and teaches at night. She is passionate about working with her colleagues at HJRA to prepare the next generation of surgeons. 

“After Mercy Ships left, we tried to firmly establish the teachings that they gave us,” she said. “The students have more confidence, thanks to the training started by Mercy Ships, and that we have carried on.” 

A ‘Durable’ Partnership 

Mercy Ships’ partnership with Madagascar runs deep. Over the course of three previous field services, a total of 2,019 healthcare professionals have received training. And in February 2024, the Africa Mercy will arrive in Toamasina, Madagascar, once again. 

Prof. Fanja said she is “delighted” to renew her partnership with Mercy Ships. 

“I have high expectations of this return,” she said. 

Just as she did in 2015, Prof. Fanja wants to partner with Mercy Ships in their Education, Training, and Advocacy (ETA) work. This program focuses on strengthening the host nation’s surgical and anesthetic systems by investing in training and mentoring local professionals, increasing the number of skilled surgeons in the nation, and creating sustainable educational programs. But Prof. Fanja does not just want to see a repeat of the past.  

“We should take on more challenges than we did before,” she said. 

If trainings are held in more medical facilities across the country, Prof. Fanja said, it will “ensure the ongoing safety of patients all over the island.” 

Prof. Fanja believes the human power and skill in her country are excellent, and quality of care has been consistently improving. 

“There are lots of conditions now that we can treat here, and 10 years ago we would have sent the patient to France or to the United States,” she said. “So I feel like surgical care is making good progress.” 

However, Prof. Fanja said to support the skilled professionals in Madagascar, more training and better equipment and technical resources are needed. That’s where a partner like Mercy Ships comes in. 

“I dream of being able to have a fully equipped faculty of medicine,” she said. 

Prof. Fanja pictures simulation labs where the training meets the highest of standards, and students get to practice with advanced equipment and modern technology. 

“Patients will always exist,” she said. “I will retire at some point, and I might get ill one day, who knows? If we can’t ensure durability, then training standards will never improve.” 

With a combination of a lasting, durable partnership, shared skills, and more technical resources and equipment for her country, Prof. Fanja believes things will indeed improve. 

“That is my dream for Madagascar,” she said. “And I think it’s a dream for all of us.” 

In 2024, Mercy Ships officially begins a new season operating as a two-ship fleet, with the Africa Mercy in Madagascar and the Global Mercy™ in Sierra Leone. These field services will not be possible without skilled volunteers to staff two crews, and partner with local surgeons like Prof. Fanja. We need crewmembers of all backgrounds and skillsets to find their purpose and their place on board.