This was my first week in Mulago Hospital. Since I began working with the Global Health Department, I have listened to dozens of stories from students, residents, and physicians who spent time in Uganda’s largest hospital. Each story seemed to underscore one point: Mulago is incredible. It is overwhelming, upsetting, inspiring, horrifying, gratifying, and everything in between. There are thousands of patients, rare diseases, and tragic cases of illness caught too late. Resources are limited, doctors scarce, and medical students are essentially the decision makers in many patients’ experience in healthcare. Thus, I entered the hospital with uncertainty and a dash of anxiety about how I would react.
What I recall from the first week at Mulago is not the number of patients suffering from progressive illness or the shortage of human resources and medical supplies, but rather the abundant humility, humanity, and generosity that I witnessed not only from physicians and medical students, but also from Ugandans with a drive to incite change.
Late in the week, as we rounded with an intern on the ward, another student and I were struck by the image of a young woman wasted on a bed with a nasogastric feeding tube, struggling to breathe as her lips were glued shut by an overwhelming oral candidiasis. The NG tube was taped to her cheek, compressing her left nostril so that her breathing was labored and audible. The intern turned to her with a look of exhaustion and attempted to adjust the tube with extra tape. The patient was a 26-year-old woman, known to be HIV positive and an alcoholic. She had no attendant, which meant that there was no one to feed her, clean her, administer fluids or medication to her, take her to get X-rays or other tests, or simply sit by her side. She was alone, lying on top of a single bed sheet as a pile of untouched medication boxes sat at the bottom of the bed.
A young man suddenly appeared with gloves and began assisting the intern. He was well-dressed and confident as he began cleaning her mouth. He then wheeled the patient out of the ward. The intern explained that this young man cared for several patients without attendant. He used his own time and funds to pay for their medications, take them for diagnostic testing, clean them, and bring them basic comforts like sheets and companionship.
I was amazed. I expect to continually be struck by the selfless compassion exhibited each day in Mulago Hospital. This place is truly incredible.