I spend my retirement saving lives in Africa

We spoke to Dr Keith Thomson who has achieved some extraordinary things in his retirement.

If Dr Keith Thomson’s father had had his way, he would have gone into the family business working for DC Thomson, the company behind legendary comics like ‘Beano’ and ‘Dandy’.

But for the 67-year-old former NHS anaesthetist, the funny books were not his vocation.

“I decided I wanted to do my own thing,” says Keith, who retired from the health service last year.

In fact, following an esteemed career in obstetrics anaesthesia, he continues to dedicate his life to his other passion – Africa.

It all started when I was flying for a meeting in Manchester,” he remembers. “I picked up a discarded copy of the Daily Telegraph and read about a ship in London docks looking for volunteer nurses and anaesthetists like me. A few days later I went to visit the ship and 25 years on I’m still involved. I’ve probably been to Africa 40 or 50 times since then.

Keith continues to be heavily involved in the charity – known as Mercy Ships – and has visited 13 African countries, including Sierra Leone, Madagascar and the Ivory Coast.

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“I’m interested in helping to bring medical education to Africa,” he explains. “And I’m interested in creating the next generation or indeed two generations of young medical people to get involved with the problems of Africa, which aren’t going to go away.”

His passion hasn’t abated, despite treatment for cancer of the tongue ten years ago. A keen fisherman, you might think he would want to spend retirement entirely in his waders.

“Long-term retirement I find quite difficult,” he admits. “What you miss in the hospital set-up is being part of the team. You may not see any of them outside the hospital, but you have the jokes and the banter.”

He continues, “I have a great love of Africa and I don’t regard going there as work. Working on the Mercy Ships, they’re the best weeks of the years for me.”

In fact, retirement has been a boon to his efforts there. “Now if I’m going, I don’t have to apply for study or annual leave,” he laughs.

His association with the continent has changed a lot of lives.

A number of years ago, I was visiting a labour ward in Sierra Leone and there was a young woman in labour who needed a caesarean, but the family had no money and they wouldn’t operate,” he says. “I paid for it – it cost $100. Five years later, they were waiting for me in Guinea in West Africa, when I flew in to join the ship, holding a poster saying, ‘Uncle Keith, thank you for saving my life and my mum’s!’ They’re now in Australia.

If you asked me what I would like to be remembered for, it would be for some of the people I’ve rescued in Africa, especially the ones I’m still in contact with. It’s a bizarre relationship – they’re still alive because I paid a $100 a few years ago.

He doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon. “I’ve got people queuing up to come on my trips,” he says. He’s also doing a float at the Lord Mayor of London’s Show for Mercy Ships and ran the London Marathon a few years ago for the charity.

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“I don’t regard it as altruistic, I regard it as fantastic fun,” he says. “When you’re in a slightly challenging environment, you make lifelong friends. I’m going to be 68 next birthday and the problem with life is you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.

I always say, you can’t change the whole world, but you can change the whole world for some people.

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