By Sam Akaki
Dr. Muniini Mulera’s excellent, if heart-wrenching, article titled ‘Doctor, you have two options: Do good or do no harm!’ published in a national daily on May 12, 2015 was totally obscured by the controversy over exporting Ugandan doctors (see report: Plan to export Ugandan medics ‘on hold’, New Vision of May 23).
Dr. Muniini had beseeched the Uganda Medical and Dental Practitioners Council to “come down very hard on any and all doctors who have lost their bearings and have become merchants in the black market that trades in people’s lives”.
He was referring to a heart-wrenching incident on October 19, 2013, when Florence Nakamya, a 23-year-old mother of one, went to Mukono government-owned health centre in labour. Mary Namatovu, a duty midwife, advised Nakamya that she needed a caesarean section, for the baby was too big to be delivered naturally.
To effect her transfer to the appropriate hospital, the midwife required a bribe of sh250,000.
To Nakamya’s relief, Dr. Christopher Bingi, an off-duty doctor at the same health centre offered to naturally deliver the baby at his private clinic at a discounted fee of sh100,000, which was reduced to sh90,000 after some further bargaining. After many hours of labour at Dr. Bingi’s clinic, attended by a nurse, Nakamya ruptured her uterus. Much later that evening, Dr. Bingi placed the patient into his own car and transported her to Mukono Church of Uganda Hospital where she and her baby were pronounced dead!
The crux of Dr. Muniini’s point was that “Nakamya and her baby were victims of an extreme greed that has engulfed Uganda, with many people of all ages and professions subscribing to the desire to get as rich as possible, as quickly as they can, anyhow”.
That is certainly the general trend, but my personal experience has also shown that there are many outstanding exceptions in which some Ugandans are scrupulously practising the moral principle of live and let live.
Take for example, the extraordinary steps, which doctors Joel Kiryabwire, Husein Senyonjo, Ben Mbonye, Tina Ssekagya and Lydia Mpanga have gone to save the life of my widowed sister, Phoebe Akullu of Apac, who had been diagnosed with an advanced brain tumour. Her excruciating condition was manifesting in severe and constant headaches, failing eyesight, seizures, convulsion, loss of memory and crucially, incontinence.
From London, I shuddered to imagine how my 90 year-old mother and her grandchildren would care for an incontinent patient at home or at Apac Hospital where there is no running water. Sending her out of the country for an operation was out of the question owing to the prohibitive cost.
To confirm my sister’s death sentence, my neighbour and friend, a neurosurgeon consultant, who saw her MRI scan reports sent from Uganda, had concluded that the size and the location of her tumour would make an operation extremely risky, even in a London hospital. We started to prepare emotionally and logistically for my sister’s funeral. But our hopes were rekindled when it was reported that Prof. Michael Haglavend of Duke Global Health Institute had arrived in Uganda to carry out free brain surgery at the national referral hospital, Mulago.
Sadly, due to the overwhelming demands exacerbated by frequent arrivals of road accident victims with severe head injuries, Prof. Haglavend left the country before my sister had reached the front of the queue. But by then, however, Dr. Kiryabwire and his team, who had already made a firm decision to operate on my sister, told my relatives who were looking after the patient not to worry. True to his word, a six-hour operation was carried out on my sister on May 18, 2015. They also found for her a bed in an intensive care unit, the limited supply of which usually delays many operations. To my mother’s utter relief, my sister was released from Mulago two weeks later without most of her original symptoms.
The patient returned to Mulago for a review on June 29, and was given the all-clear. From what I heard in her voice when I telephoned her in the evening and what her carers who observe her daily had told me, it is clear that my sister has acquired a new lease of life save for blurred vision in one eye.
On behalf of my family, especially my mother, I wish to acknowledge the eternal debt of thanks that we owe to doctors Kiryabwire, Ssenyonjo, Mbonye, Ssekagya and Mpanga for their direct and/or indirect contribution to my sister’s life-saving operation.
At no time before, during or after the operation did any of them explicitly or implicitly ask for money. Nor did they care about her tell-tale tribal name. This is not because they are alien creatures, who have suddenly dropped from outer space. But it is because they are outstandingly professional, breathtakingly selfless and incredibly committed to serving fellow Ugandans.
That also explains why they have not gone to the UK, US or Canada where each of them would be earning at least $100,000 every month.
That they have cured my sister, something their UK counterpart had said was impossible, speaks volumes about their professional skills. Few poor Ugandans would be needlessly dying, and even fewer rich ones would be spending tens of thousands of dollars going to the UK, India or South Africa for brain tumour or any other intricate operation if our doctors were given adequate facilities at Mulago.
Unlike those “heroes” subjectively awarded medals for their ‘role’ in liberating Ugandans from Ugandans since 1971, Joel Kiryabwire, Hussein Senyonjo, Ben Mbonye, Tina Ssekagya and Lydia Mpanga are the real but unsung heroes, who “give without counting the cost; toil without seeking rest, labour without asking for reward and save lives knowing they are doing God’s will”. (St Ignatius Loyola).
The writer is the former FDC international envoy and also former independent parliamentary candidate in the UK, now consultant on Africa-EU matters
Uganda’s hero doctors without monetary and tribal borders