Garreth Wood: Why I will spend the rest of my life making children’s surgeries better

Garreth Wood

Kids Operating Room co-founder Garreth Wood during the interview at his office in Karen on Thursday. 

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

One of the stories published online in The Times of London in September 14, 2018 had a headline that read: “Millionaire Garreth Wood quits day job to help children.”

Then the story started: “A millionaire businessman has sold off his Scottish bar and restaurant portfolio to dedicate the next 20 years of his life to helping sick children around the world.

It added: “Garreth Wood co-founded Kids Operating Room (KidsOR) in January with Nicola Jolly, his wife, a winner of the Miss Scotland beauty pageant. Their charity works to develop dedicated facilities and equipment for paediatric operating theatres in poor countries .”

Garreth has been in Kenya over the past few days. On Thursday when he spoke with Lifestyle, he said he committed £4.5 million (Sh637 million in today’s rates) from the sale of his restaurants business into the organisation.

Nyeri County unveils new children's theatre

The organisation aims at building children surgery wards in as many hospitals as possible across the world. They coordinate with the health ministry of countries – mainly in Africa and South America – and are given the space to construct theatres or refurbish existing rooms.

By the time they hand over the facility to the ministry and the hospital administration, said Garreth, they ensure they have installed a theatre with facilities as good as those you can find in the developed world.

“(We deliver) beautiful, state-of-the-art operating rooms with more than 3,000 pieces of equipment in each operating room; all brand new, all state-of-the-art,” he said.

“It’s not like we have one machine that we use in Scotland and send a second-hand one here or something of that sort, no,” added Garreth.

One way of telling that a room has been built by Gareth’s organisation is the artwork placed on walls. You will find colourful images of butterflies, giraffes, birds among others.

“The artwork was designed to be very child-friendly, that whole journey-to-theatre experience, to try and calm down the child, to give them something to distract them,” Garreth explained.

They have so far constructed operation rooms in 50 countries, and their first ever project was in Uganda, long before KidsOR was even formally formed.

In Kenya, the organisation has built operating rooms at the AIC Kijabe Hospital, the Tenwek Mission Hospital, Makueni Referral Hospital, and the Meru Teaching and Referral Hospital.

There was an addition on Friday, in what was billed as a world-first: Garreth’s organisation opened a paediatric theatre inside the vast Kakuma Refugee Camp in north-western Kenya. Garreth was poised to make his first ever visit to the camp the day after our interview.

He had hoped to be there long before now, but due to the Covid restrictions, it has just not been possible.

According to Rosemary Mugwe, the Africa director for Kids Operating Room, the Kakuma launch is expected to have a big impact.

“We are so happy to be able to bring access close to the children in the camp as well as the host community. We know this is an area that has had lots of difficulties,” she said. “Children have to go 200 kilometres just to get very simple surgery done.”

Aged 43, Garreth is the chairman of KidsOR. A humorous lanky man, he told Lifestyle that his mother taught him  important lessons about life.

“She called it the life lottery: One child is born into a life of wealth; another child born into poverty. And I felt that I was very lucky,” he said.

According to Forbes, Garreth’s father Ian Wood and his family were worth $1.7 billion (Sh197.5 billion) by Friday.

“Ian Wood transformed a family-owned fishing business based in Aberdeen, Scotland, into John Wood Group, a multinational oil services company listed on the London Stock Exchange,” Forbes says of Garreth’s father.

Below are excerpts from our interview with Garreth, a father of two daughters aged 11 and 6, at the KidsOR offices in Nairobi — which is the Africa headquarters.

From way back as a young boy, do you remember doing something charitable?

Well, I was born into a wealthy family; so, born into privilege. But very much, we were taught the importance of the value of money, we weren’t spoilt as children. My father didn’t live a very affluent life. He didn’t do all the things you might automatically assume a wealthy family can do.

Yes, we were lucky enough to have a private education but we didn’t go on fancy holidays or travel on private planes; none of that.

We weren’t given access to wealth when we were young. It’s something we had to earn.

Talking about my first steps into philanthropy, I myself had many challenges when I was 15. I was very, very ill; on life support for two weeks.

Luckily, I made a full recovery. Then I decided to do a parachute jump to raise money for meningitis research and my mother was mad at me.

I remember doing the jump at 900 pounds in cash. And I remember handing over to the charity. It was probably the first time I felt the joy of giving.

How much could this money do?

It was not a lot of money, but for a 16-year-old, I had never held 900 pounds in my hand before.

So, the urge kept growing?

Yes. From then on, I’ve always been involved with giving. I’ve always included giving in my lifestyle. You know, I ran a restaurant business for 15 years and we ran a burger chain within that business that gave all the profits it made to charity.

In 2018, you sold all your businesses then went into this. Was it a difficult decision to make?

Because it was a huge decision, there had to be a huge reason why we were going to take that decision.

My elder daughter is alive today because she had an operation. She would have died without it. And although sometimes we take our own healthcare system for granted, she survived because of the interventions made in her life when she was three weeks old.

Then we went through several issues with having children and we lost children. They themselves had had surgery but hadn’t survived. But we still, at every point of health access in Scotland, we got the best cure; the best interventions. So, that made us ask: ‘How do we improve children’s lives either in Scotland or globally in terms of improving the children’s lives across low-income countries and also in Scotland?’

And we fell into the health space because actually through my giving in the pub business, we were supporting a charity called the Archie Foundation with about £100,000 a year from the restaurants. And I was asked to become a patron of the Archie Foundation which was run by David Cunningham who is now our CEO at KidsOR.

By the time David approached me around 2014, he had been approached to fund a one-off operating room in Uganda. It was a really simple proposal: there was a surgeon called Dr John Sekabira. John was the only paediatric surgeon in the country. All he needed was a space and tools to do the job, because he was having to operate on children in an adults’ operating room with adults’ instruments.

Nicola and I put the majority of the funding into that, and it was a huge success.

We built a second operating room in Uganda shortly after the first one and we got the bug because we could see the impact this was having.

One paper said you were going into this for 20 years from 2018.

Not 20 years. I think we were joking. We’ll do this as long as I am physically capable of working. I don’t really believe in retirement. We see this as what we are doing for the rest of our lives.

And Nicola, as the co-founder, has never wavered and her support that we should sell the business and focus here. She focuses on Latin America; I focus on Africa and South-East Asia.

Tell us how a typical operation room looks like.

The work that’s required to get an operating room up to standard is varied. There are really easy scenarios where we get a hospital say there’s a room and the floor is not too bad and we go there and we may replace the floor. And we have to build systems for gas, making the room safe and hygienic for surgery, maybe the light systems have to be replaced. We have also built entire operation spaces outside of hospitals.

How do you feel about your trip to Kakuma Refugee Camp?

I am excited. We have talked about Kakuma for a long time.

A few people are asking us why a refugee camp, but I would say: Why should the life of a child who is a refugee be any less valuable than any other child?

How do you finance the operating rooms? And do you charge the patients?

We raise money from donors, and that money is used for building operating rooms and supporting the training of surgical teams. And we deliver the entire space, all the equipment. The space is obviously provided by the Ministry of Health within a hospital where it is identified that our service is needed. And when we leave, the responsibility lies within the Ministry of Health to pay the wages of the surgeons and the surgical team. We pay for the scholarship of surgeons, but once that surgeon is qualified, they go to work in the operating room.

Do you encounter problems when you approach donors and you are from a billionaire’s family?

Of course. But that’s one of the reasons we put £4.5 million into KidsOR when we started it. It’s because you put your money where your mouth is.

The bio we have of you says you’re a car enthusiast. What’s your favourite car?

Anything with four wheels. My wife Nicola is a horse rider and she keeps trying to get me into horses. And I tell her, ‘One horsepower is not enough. I need 750 horsepower before I really get excited about something.’

And what would you tell your wife through our platform?

In terms of KidsOR, she has never, ever tried to hold me back. And she’s always been very supportive of our ambitions to do what we want to do. She allows me the grace to go away and travel. She does travel a bit with Kids OR but not as much as I do.

She cares for our children, she raises them when I am travelling for 10 to 15 days a month sometimes, and that’s a huge amount of work.


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