A memorial service to remember and honour healthcare professionals that have died in the last year or so was held in Kampala last past Friday.
This event, jointly organised by members of the Uganda Medical Association, Uganda Dental Association, the Pharmaceutical Society of Uganda, the Nurses and Midwives Union, the Medical Clinical Officers and Allied Health, and the Association of Laboratory Technologists, was an excellent demonstration of the collaborative multidisciplinary nature of modern healthcare practice.
The death of any member of the team, regardless of their area of specialty, strikes at the heart of the professional family of people who have dedicated their lives to keep us safe and healthy.
Unlike the old days where non-doctors were considered to be “support staff” or “allied workers”, today there is no doubt that each member of the team is essential to the provision of the best care to which patients are entitled.
Likewise, the occupational hazard of health-facility-acquired Covid-19 is equally shared across the disciplines that serve us as patients. This is a detail that journalists need to consider in their reporting of news about the deaths of healthcare professionals. News of the natural death of a medical doctor usually receives attention and publicity by the scribes.
The non-violent death of a nurse or laboratory technologist is rarely mentioned by journalists or the leaders of the Ministry of Health. Without nurses and technologists, doctors are helpless and unable to do much for their patients.
The list of our dead was long and depressing. I counted one village health team worker, one health inspector, one clinical officer, three laboratory technologists, three pharmacists, five nurses and 43 doctors. The professions of three others were not specified.
It would have been hard enough if all had reached very old age and the inevitable rendezvous with death. Our loss is compounded by the premature deaths of many who were very much in their prime or even younger.
That a number of them were felled by Covid-19, acquired in their line of duty, has deepened our anguish. We honour these professionals for their contribution to our health and the advancement of medical knowledge.
On a personal note, I remember with fondness and profound respect some of the honorees. Dr Emmanuel Lumu, Uganda’s first minister of Health. Dr Bwogi Kanyerezi, Dr Charles L Sezi, Dr George Kamya and Dr Edward Kigonya, our teachers who laid a strong foundation for us at Makerere Medical School. Dr Gelasius Mukasa, Dr Israel Kalyesubula and Dr Fred Nsobya Kigozi, our seniors in Medical School, who freely shared knowledge and tips on successful negotiation of the difficult path towards becoming doctors.
Dr Denis Mpwereirwe and Dr David Ssenoga, our classmates with whom we shared more than academic adventures. Their deaths hit hard because they were members of my acquired family.
There is one death in 2020 that ripped at my heart in a way that words cannot really express. When Prof Robert (Bob) Henry Albin Haslam died at the age of 83 on March 30, 2020, I was emotionally frozen. I felt almost as orphaned as I was when my father died five months earlier.
When I received the call in late1980 from Prof Haslam, chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Calgary, Alberta, I had been mulling over offers from three other centres in Canada and one in the United States. My decision was made very easy the moment I hang up the phone. There was a warmth and friendliness in Dr Haslam’s voice that suggested that he would suit my nature very well. It was one of the best decisions I made. Haslam turned out to be one of the most distinguished paediatric neurologists in North America, an outstanding scholar, researcher, teacher, mentor and visionary, who soon became my friend.
It was fortuitous that a year after I joined the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto in 1985, Haslam was appointed physician-in-chief, chairman and head of the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Toronto.
He readily accepted my request for help with training Ugandan doctors to become paediatricians, who would return home to strengthen paediatrics education at Makerere University and child health services in other parts of the country. He had kept himself well informed about Uganda and understood the scope of destruction in every aspect of life.
Haslam mobilised the support of the University of Toronto and obtained long-term funding commitment for a Makerere programme. Ugandan doctors who passed a basic examination enabling them to train in Canada, would come here and be paid salaries like other Canadian graduates.
A committee was set up, with me appointed as the liaison between the University of Toronto and Makerere Medical School. I obtained the agreement of the team that we needed to partner with the Ministry of Health in Uganda to ensure integration of training in paediatrics and service delivery.
Our dream was to progress to an exchange programme that would enable trainees and consultants from both universities to learn and share experiences.
Armed with the offer, my wife and I travelled to Uganda in December 1987, confident that the leaders of the Ministry of Health and Makerere Medical School, would share our excitement and grab the opportunity. Unfortunately, the authorities in the Ministry of Health and at Makerere Medical School.
It was only Dr Gelasius Mukasa, Eriya Kategaya, at the time a deputy prime minister, and Amanya Mushega, a minister in the government, who took the matter very seriously and attempted to get people to act on it. Their efforts were unsuccessful.
After two wasted years of trying to get the Uganda Government and Makerere authorities to accept the gift, I recommended to Prof Haslam to offer the project to another country. With sadness and regret, he agreed with that recommendation. It was a sweet-and-sour experience that left me scarred.
Prof Haslam served as our chief at the Hospital for Sick Children from 1986 to1996, then practiced paediatric neurology here until 2000 before returning to Calgary, Alberta. There he continued to teach and inspire the next generation of paediatricians.
Haslam, who published more than 200 peer-reviewed papers, books and book chapters, was the recipient of multiple awards of excellence. Such honours did not define him and, like most doctors in Canada, he did not consider his titles to be a big deal.
He was a highly skilled clinician, very compassionate, humble and full of grace. He preferred to be simply called Bob. I miss him and honour this wonderful gentleman. He was my friend.
Dr Mulera is a medical doctor. firstname.lastname@example.org