I met yet another inspiring Uganda today. They seem everywhere.
Michael is a young pediatrician and he works at a remarkable place. It’s called St. Mary’s Hospital but is commonly referred to its name “Lacor”, which is the name of the village in which it resides just outside of Gulu. The name means “boy” in Acholi.
Lacor has a unique story. It was founded by Dr. Piero Corti, an Italian paediatrician and his Canadian wife, Dr. Lucille Teasdale, a paediatric surgeon, who subsequently died from HIV in 1996 after contracting from a patient while in surgery. In 2000, it was the epicentre of an Ebola outbreak and 13 members of its staff died from the virus while treating the local population.
At the height of Uganda’s civil war in 2004, it was a place of refuge during the civil war when up to 10,000 people would come through its gates every night to sleep in the courtyard to escape the Lord’s Resistance Army that preyed on the people each night.
It is sprawling, clean, patient-friendly and achieves higher clinical outcomes than any other hospital in Uganda. After seeing the terrible conditions at hospitals in Kampala and Gulu earlier, particularly in maternity wards, I was struck by the incredible contrast. The maternity and pediatric wards at Lacor are spacious, well equipped (with equipment that is actually functional), and well staffed. It is, to say the least, an oasis of hope.
It’s also a fee-based hospital.
There are no fees for women having babies or for the provision of care of children under the age of 5. For all others however, there are user fees. Those fees range from a few dollars for basic care and medicines, to about $10 for an x-ray, to a maximum of about $40 for some services. This is a lot of money for the vast majority of people here, but don’t get the wrong impression. This is not like the private hospitals in Kampala that are used by the wealthy and the foreigners. Lacor is a missionary hospital financially supported by a Catholic charity in Italy, and while most of its budget is covered by foreign donations, patients are expected to pay a share of the costs.
While I found the experience inspirational, I left Lacor utterly frustrated.
If it can be done here, it proves that it’s possible elsewhere in this country. Obviously the fees are problematic but surely the government can find a way to replicate this success in terms of the actual delivery of healthcare.
Women need not labour on the floor. Women need not die routinely in delivery. Preemies need not be packed in rooms with no working incubators. It just doesn’t have to happen. Lacor proves that with the proper resources and the will, Uganda’s health system need not be so desperate.
The other day, another young obstetrician I met made a desperate plea to his country. He mocked what everyone refers to here as African Standard Time – the common practice for every meeting, every interaction, every initiative to start late and move slowly.
“Women are dying. Babies are dying,” he said. “We must reject African Standard Time. We must hurry.”
The people here need to bring urgency to their healthcare system. They must hurry.