On Wednesday, Uganda was declared Ebola free.
When I visited Bundibugyo at the height of the epidemic two months ago, it was noticeable that it wasn’t always the wealthiest, the most educated, the most vocal who were at the forefront of the fight to contain the deadly virus. Those with money packed up their bags and abandoned the district, leaving a few dedicated medical workers, clerics and volunteers to manage the disease.
This post is a tribute to those unsung heroes … lest we forget.
Hero Number One
In December I asked Tom Ndyanabo, the Bundibugyo Red Cross Field Coordinator, if he could name a hero of the Ebola fight. Without hesitation he said, “Julius Mande.”
Julius Mande, the Senior Clinical Officer of Kikyo Health Center, is one of those rare truly humble people. Unlike many civil servants in Uganda, he opted not to work in his home district of Kasese, but to serve the poor in Kikyo sub-county in Bundibugyo. When a strange disease started claiming lives in Kikyo in August last year, he worked around the clock to find a cure for the ailment, consistently disputing the assumptions of his seniors who dismissed it as chronic intestinal worms or Marburg. He worked with no protective gear, watching his nurses succumb to the disease, receiving real relief only three months later. It is a miracle that Mande did not contract Ebola.
The disease hit the people of Kikyo hard and Mande was right there on top of things, laboring in the midst of personnel and drug shortages, to calm his patients and their families. But he will not take any of the praise for himself. He says he was only a spoke in a wheel.
The national celebrations to mark the end of Ebola were scheduled to be held in Kikyo this week. They were postponed because there is no money to renovate Kikyo Health Center. For Mande, this is the least of his worries. He takes everything in stride, going about his job of saving lives with a smile on his face. He’s a real hero.
Hero Number Two
I should have said heroes because that’s what the 100-plus volunteers of the Uganda Red Cross Society are. Volunteering is not something Ugandans are strong on. Ours is a world of nothing for nothing and something for something. The Bundibugyo volunteers showed us that we can do better; that we can be better.
Bundibugyo is situated at the northern end of the Rwenzori Mountain Range. It is rough terrain and in the middle of the December and January rainy seasons, trekking for miles up the mountains was no easy feat. Yet for the love of their people, the Red Cross Volunteers walked many miles to educate them about Ebola and its spread. They met with people in their homes, allayed fears and consoled those who lost their loved ones. They were not paid a coin, only receiving a basic lunch allowance, boots and a uniform to do their work. They are real heroes.
Hero Number Three
When the Ebola epidemic broke out in Gulu district in 2000 and 2001, Dr. Zebulon Yoti, was a young epidemiologist at St. Mary’s Hospital Lacor. He was by the side of the hospital supervisor, Dr. Matthew Lukwiya, when he lost the battle against the disease and he watched more than 10 of his colleagues die a painful death. Despite this, he wasn’t deterred in his mission to make the world a better place and when Ebola was reported in Bundibugyo he was one of the first people on the scene.
Dr. Yoti is one of a handful of experts on Ebola and he could be anywhere around the world giving lectures on the disease, wining and dining with the cream of the crop in the medical field. Instead he went to Bundibugyo to coordinate the Ebola case management in Bundibugyo and the work of a team of specialists from the Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization, International Rescue Committee, the Red Cross and Medicine Sans Frontiers.
Hero Number Four
Thik of TV’s Dr. Gregory House when you think of Dr. Stephen Ssesanga. Think of Dr. House without the melancholy, rudeness or poor bedside manner. Think of Dr. House the Medical Maverick. He doesn’t look like it, but Dr. Ssesanga, the Medical Superintendent of Bundibugyo Hospital is one of the most unconventional, inspiring people I have ever met. He’s a hero.
Battling an epidemic like Ebola with limited equipment, resources and staff is an uphill task for the most experienced doctors. But this doesn’t compare with the challenge of fighting the disease, contracting the disease and losing five vital members of your medical team to the disease. This is the challenge facing Dr. Ssesanga, who himself survived a four-week battle against Ebola. The Medical Superintendent says his recovery is still a mystery and he can only attribute it to prayer and to the fact that he has never lost the will to live.
When Dr. Ssesanga first offered to go to Bundibugyo in 1997, the district was caught up in the bloody war waged by the Allied Democratic Force and he was cut off from any communication outside the district. By the time the war ended in 2001, decentralization was in place and he could not leave at will. He was informed that any recruitment of staff was in the hands of local governments and not the Ministry of Health and he no longer pick and choose where to go.
Initially Dr. Ssesanga resigned to his fate to stay in Bundibugyo, but the beautiful lush land with its open people became his home. He said it was not hard for him to dive head-first into the Ebola epidemic without protective gear or medication to save lives. He suffered for it, but lived to tell the tale.
Honoring the Rest
Drs. Scott & Jennifer Myhre, who stayed true to their calling to be missionaries to Bundibugyo, stepping in when Dr. Ssesanga fell ill and supporting the community when Dr. Jonah Kule passed away. Jennifer’s moving blog Paradox Uganda gave the disease a human face and daily updates on the fight to combat the disease.
Staff of the World Health Organization, MSF, CDC, Ministry of Health who left the comfort of their homes for the dingy Bundibugyo hotels to offer advice and technical support to the team on the ground.
Dr. William Sikyewunda, Bundibugyo’s long-suffering District Health Officer and his surveillance officer, Enoch Bahati, who followed patients to their homes, reported religiously on new Ebola contacts and transported the sick to the hospitals. In the midst of claims of foul play and a cover-up, Dr. Sikyewunda made a conscious decision to ignore the politics and to focus on saving lives.
The fallen heroes – Dr. Jonah Kule, Rose Bulimpikya, Joshua Kule; all the nurses and clinical officers who worked around the clock to contain the disease.
The people of Bundibugyo. Neglected. Impoverished. Hard pressed. Beautiful. Warm. Open. Strong. Optimistic. They have bounced back. They are my heroes.
I honor you.