For the past eight years, Anthony Charles, MD, has built the Malawian Surgical Initiative, training Malawian surgeons to care for their own and providing transformative educational experiences for UNC medical students and residents.

By formal training, Anthony Charles, MD, MPH, is a trauma surgeon. By experience, he’s a diplomat.

Charles leads the Malawian Surgical Initiative, a partnership between the UNC Department of Surgery, Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe, Malawi, and the Malawi College of Medicine in Blantyre, Malawi.

On December 5, 2015, the first class of surgeons graduated from the five-year training program. And on that day, the number of trained surgeons in a country of 15 million people grew by six – to a total of 20. The goal is that they stay in their home country to serve their fellow citizens.

The graduation marked the beginning of a period of great expansion for the program, which has newly established partnerships with UNC’s departments of urology, neurosurgery, and anesthesiology.

 Leading the initiative requires Charles – also an active trauma surgeon, and director of the adult ECMO program at UNC Hospitals – to navigate the challenges that come from coordinating a program from another continent and closely collaborating with a foreign government.

“This program is entirely built on trust, which has contributed to its success, but also makes it fragile,” Charles said. “We’ve done a lot of good, which I think has bought us some grace and good will, but all it takes is one person going down there and saying the wrong thing, and it can just come crashing down.”

For eight years now, Charles has kept that from happening.

“He is the glue,” said Bruce Cairns, MD, the John Stackhouse Distinguished Professor of Surgery at the UNC School of Medicine and director of North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center. “The reason the program is successful is because of his efforts. In Malawi, our involvement is a socio-political issue as much as a health care issue. Each linkage we make there has to be through an individual; a committee won’t work. And what we have with Anthony is someone who has the unique capacity to connect all of the dots.”

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