KidsOR co-founder Nicola Wood on her work, goals, and persevering in a pandemic
by Eve Livingston
“We thrive on taking something people say is impossible and making it possible”: KidsOR co-founder Nicola Wood on her work, goals, and persevering in a pandemic.
Since Nicola Wood co-founded Kids Operating Room with her husband Garreth in 2018, the charity has opened world-class, child-friendly operating theatres in the countries that need them most at a rate of more than one a month. With this year’s International Women’s Day celebrations focusing on the theme of leadership, we sat down with Nicola to talk about her work with the charity and her hopes for its future.
Why did you start Kids Operating Room?
Garreth and I had been involved in charity work for many years but after having our own child who needed immediate medical intervention in order to survive, we knew first hand how lucky we had been to bring our eldest daughter home at all. Sadly we later lost our triplets, but we still had the joy of knowing them for a short period, something we wouldn’t have had if it wasn’t for access to the surgeons and facilities that come with state-of-the-art hospitals. Here in the U.K. we are continually developing and becoming so advanced, but there are still parts of the world where children can’t access surgery at all and that’s what we’re working to change with KidsOR.
Due to the pandemic, we’ve faced stripped back services in the U.K. as the NHS handled a huge volume of Covid cases, and we’ve all had a glimpse of what it’s like for parents and families having treatments delayed and postponed. Now, imagine that was the reality on a day-to-day basis, regardless of a pandemic. So we work in countries where, before we arrived, there was no specialist, no surgeon, no anaesthetist for children - where parents face waits of 2-3 years for simple corrective surgery. In the case of a life-threatening condition or accident, children will often die long before they ever get the chance to see a surgeon. Those are needless deaths simply because of services they do not have. We work to empower local surgeons to provide this care and we give them the necessary tools so we can create a sustainable solution where local doctors are caring for their country’s own children.
What are your goals for the charity?
The main goal is quite simple: a world where every child has access to safe surgery. One day, hopefully, there will be no need for our charity to exist because we’ll have created enough ORs around the world that all children have immediate access whenever they require it.
I think in today’s day and age everybody is really aware of inequality, whether it’s minority groups, sexuality, gender, any of these incredibly important movements. I’d love for equality to surgery for children around the world to be an emphasis too - access to surgery for every person is important, but children face even greater inequality because they’re not of working age and so general surgery has to prioritise adults. Surgery is vitally important so I’d really love for people to think about this issue and want to do something about it.
This last year has been a real challenge, but have there been any highlights or big achievements for you?
There are lots of highlights! I’m really impressed with our team, who have remained driven and continued to be problem solvers and find a way for us to keep doing our work. I’m incredibly proud that they’ve kept up morale and found solutions. Their hard work means we’ve got 30 new ORs being opened in Africa in 2021.
Last year we also provided 25,000 high quality face masks to surgeons in low resource settings, at this point in time when it’s been incredibly challenging to get things to people. And, closer to home, we supported the NHS by donating 10 intensive care beds at the height of the pandemic for critically ill Covid patients in Scotland. That was a great moment for me; our work is focused on lower to middle income countries but we do also feel a duty to help people at home. We want to be there supporting wherever we can.
You lead the charity’s work in Latin America – are there plans to develop further in that region?
Yes, we’re already in hospitals in Ecuador, Peru and Haiti where we’re working with amazing doctors, but we’re always developing and growing - our work will not be finished until every child has access to safe surgery. Even in the areas that are most difficult to reach, we’re determined to find a way and we thrive on being problem solvers: taking something people say is impossible and making it possible. Latin America as a region has different challenges from Africa, but we know that our deep knowledge in Africa helped us progress quickly, so we’ve invested time and effort to learn about Latin America so we can have the same impacts there. We wanted to make sure that when we formulated a plan for the region we did it in an informed way that would make a real difference.
One of the main things that we’ve found is that in countries such as Argentina or Brazil, the main capitals and main cities do have state-of-the-art facilities, and they are unbelievably prepared for all different surgeries including paediatric surgeries. But in some of the more remote areas, there are no ORs or surgeons dedicated to children at all. That inequality in care is one of the things we really want to tackle, so that families and children can expect the same service whether they live rurally or in the middle of a big city.
Outside of KidsOR, do you have other roles that take up a lot of your time?
I’m a mother to two beautiful girls who are just fantastic - although as everybody right now in the midst of the pandemic will appreciate, juggling homeschooling and a little one who has lots of ideas about what to do with her day has been a challenge! But it’s been great fun too and lovely to spend so much time together.
We also have an estate (the Yester Estate) in East Lothian where there are lots of elements to managing the estate and house. I’m very hands on with the management of things like forestry and livestock, and with events - although those we had planned for this year have been postponed because of Covid.
These many roles must fill up your diary – do you ever get to travel to any of the hospitals you support or take part in the installations?
It’s been a real highlight getting to travel and be involved in installations. I was there at the installations in Ecuador and Peru where I got to meet with the surgeons and team who were involved, which was such a joy and so inspiring. Travelling is something that’s in my blood - I really love travelling the world and have done since I was young. I developed an interest in Latin America when I travelled to Brazil years ago; I was overwhelmed by the people and the culture, and couldn’t wait to go back! I found Ecuador and Peru had the same sort of zest and passion, and I really enjoyed my time in both countries.
The long travel is also a great time for us to spend as a team, travelling with different people and getting to know each other in different ways. One of the things we emphasise at KidsOR is that we enjoy doing our work - we love being together as a team and making these differences, so it’s a pleasure and a joy to travel to an installation. You always leave with a really good feeling.