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Atugonza’s triumph over brain tumour

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Stella Atugonza with her husband Simon Memeri. PHOTO | COURTESY

Stella Atugonza had always suffered from frequent headaches and would often self-prescribe painkillers. With time, paracetamol stopped relieving her pain. 

“I did not see the point in seeing a doctor since I thought I suffered from chronic headaches. So, I resorted to asking friends about the strongest painkiller on the market and that is what I would buy,” she says.

However, in 2022 the situation became worse.  Apart from the usual headache, Atungoza lost the ability to control her facial muscles. 

“One day during a conference I was in so much pain but trying to remain bold. My boss noticed that I was restless and frowning, and advised me to seek immediate medical attention. I went to Victoria Medical Centre in Nakasero where the doctors said the headache could be an after-effect of Covid-19,” she says.

Atugonza was given some medicine to manage the pain and after a few days of taking it, the pain stopped. Five days after the Easter holiday in April 2022, she got a pounding headache and this time, it was accompanied by a stiff neck and back. Because they had no car and it was late in the night, her husband tried to manage the pain with a massage until about 6am when they made their way to the hospital.

She was admitted to Victoria Medical Centre, where the doctors diagnosed her with typhoid and malaria. She was in the hospital for three days but, even on the day she was discharged, she had a mild headache.

Further tests

“Even after completing my dosage, I was still in pain. I was taken to Platinum Hospital in Kampala where the doctors carried out several tests but could not find anything wrong with me,” she says.

Fortunately, they managed the pain and sent her home. However, the pain returned and for more than one and a half months, although she was on treatment, there was no change. A relative suggested visiting another hospital for further consultation.

“I had a session with a psychiatrist and from the questions he asked, he thought I was running mad. He recommended a CT scan, which showed a dark mass near the brain,” Atugonza says, adding that the doctor then recommended an MRI scan. At this point, her limbs were cold and numb and needed a wheelchair to get around. She was put in an ambulance and rushed to Nakasero Hospital in Kampala.

“I was then taken to Nsambya Hospital in Kampala where the MRI scan showed that blood vessels leading to the brain were bulging and blood was leaking into the brain. My brain was damaged and the blood vessels were bursting. The doctors said I needed immediate surgery but it could not be done in Uganda,” she says.

Atugonza needed about Shs150m to enable her travel to Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, where the surgery would be done. At this point, she had lost sight in her right eye and any noise brought her immense pain. 

“My husband and I did not have this money yet at the hospital, we still needed Shs70,000  per week for painkillers. I also needed medicine to melt down the blood around my brain,” she says.

After three weeks of  hospitalisation, the insurance was depleted. Her husband asked that he take her home since the bills increased every day. Although the doctors hesitated at first, they later agreed since they saw how we were struggling to pay the bills. 

“They advised staying in a quiet place and dark room and restricting phone usage. My husband kept soliciting funds from family and friends. He did not stop even when the deadline we had been given to go for surgery had passed,” she adds.

A ray of hope 

“I failed to get the money in two weeks. I met an Indian doctor at Nakasero Hospital who said we needed about Shs80m to have the surgery done in India but needed to first deposit $5,000 (about Shs19m),” says Simon Memeri, her husband. 

Friends were still contributing towards Atugonza’s surgery and whatever they had collected covered the visa and accommodation fees and in October 2022, the couple travelled to India. After several tests, it was confirmed that Atugonza had a brain tumour. The scan also showed dilated vessels, the reason she could not see. 

“Although we were given three treatment options for the tumour, doctors recommended surgery even though it was the riskier option. I got so scared when on her way to the theatre, we found out that another patient with the same condition had developed complications after surgery and died,” Memeri says.


After the surgery, Atugonza was taken to the Intensive Care Unit for recovery and fortunately, the surgery was successful. After a week, she was discharged but told to go for monthly reviews for about a year.

“We were also given a meal plan and because it was specialised, we would spend Shs30,000 per day. She had to take medication every day for a year and the medicine would cost Shs15,000 per day,” Memeri says, adding that thankfully, Atugonza has not suffered any complications and was even able to give birth to a baby girl.