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Meet the Christian medics on a truly life-saving mission in Uganda

Six medical professionals from the province tell Stephanie Bell why they are using their holiday leave to bring their clinical and IT expertise to an African hospital.

A team of top Northern Ireland medics are giving up their annual leave to work in a bush hospital in a war-torn part of rural Uganda.

Two doctors have already flown to the remote region of Africa, where they will be joined by four colleagues to use their skills in a hospital which was founded by a doctor from here.

The team, which has self-funded the trip to Kiwoko Hospital, include an obstetrician, a microbiologist, an ultra-sonographer, an endocrinologist, an IT training manager and a senior IT support officer.

For many of the team this is not their first visit to the hospital.

Kiwoko (pronounced Cheewoko) Hospital is a bush facility in the Luweero district of rural Uganda, about 50 miles north of Kampala.

It developed from a health centre set up in 1987 by Dr Ian Clarke, a GP originally from Newtownards.

The remote hospital currently serves a population of half a million people on an annual budget of around £750,000 a year - roughly the daily cost of running an acute hospital here.

Among its medical provision, the hospital also runs an extensive community healthcare programme, including AIDS awareness, nutrition, and health education.

And the local people travel many miles to receive medical care. Of the native population, 14% are HIV positive.

People also lack access to basic amenities, the water quality is poor and malnutrition is rife.

Part-sponsored by the South Eastern Trust, which has set up a unique partnership with the hospital, the medics, who will spend between two to five weeks in the area, will be using all but one week of their annual leave, with one week sponsored by the Trust.

Before they left, we caught up with the team to find out what motivates them and what they hope to achieve during their visit.

‘It’s a bush hospital in the jungle with plenty of snakes and cockroaches’

Mark Kennaway (36), who lives in Crumlin, is leading the group, as well as using his skills as a senior ICT support officer at the Ulster Hospital. It will be his fourth visit to the hospital. Mark received a Commendation in the Queen's Birthday Honours list last May in recognition of his work at the hospital, where he has helped to build the IT Department. He says:

I help with training in administration functions and IT, taking my lead from the IT trainer, Trevor Anderson. It's my job to make sure everything runs smoothly day-to-day and that the hospital is getting the most out of it.

Fortunately, the Trust has allowed me to refurbish 50 laptops to bring out to the hospital, which have been a huge benefit as the power supply is not good.

I also play a bit of a pastoral role, making sure everyone on the trip is okay and has what they need.

It is very much a bush hospital, out in the jungle with rain water showers and plenty of snakes and cockroaches.

The electricity is fairly stable, but shuts off at night. The hospital has purpose-built nurses' accommodation, where we will be staying. People travel for many miles to get treatment in the hospital and I've heard of some travelling for a couple of days to get there.

The average life expectancy in the area is in the forties, as people in this region age quicker because their quality of life is poorer than ours.

My Christian faith drives me. We are living in a world where there is great spiritual and physical need. I feel compelled to do something, as to do nothing is to be complacent.

A lot of Jesus's ministry was helping the poor and three billion people in the world are living on less than two dollars a day."

'It can be challenging to adapt ... there's a lot of sickness and death'

Dr Roy Harper (53) has been a consultant endocrinologist at the Ulster Hospital since 1999, specialising in diabetes treatment. He left last Friday for Kiwoko, where he will spend five weeks running the male ward, giving Rory Wilson, the medical director, a much needed break. Dr Harper, from Drumreagh, is married to Carol (50), a nurse in the Royal Victoria Hospital, and has four children - David (26), Andrew (24), Amy (21) and Michael (17). He says:

This will be my sixth visit to the hospital. The first time I went, I just fell in love with the place. It really is a wonderful hospital, which is always developing and provides really good care.

I will be there for five weeks, four weeks of which is my annual leave, and luckily the South Eastern Trust is giving me a week, so it is wonderful to have their support.

My role will be to work on the male ward and support some of the doctors out there, especially the medical director who has so much on his plate.

I will be filling in the gaps and helping to free him up. There are a lot of different diseases we deal with out there which we don't see in this country, such as HIV, TB, malaria and other tropical infections.

There are not so many elderly patients as we would have here.

Resources are very limited and we don't have access to scanners and equipment that we use in Northern Ireland, but we can still do a lot of good using simple tools.

While it is a huge chunk of my own time, it is my wife's graciousness that allows me to do this on an annual basis. At the end of the day, she gives up more by letting me go than I do by going out there. It is nice to be able to give something back.

As a committed Christian, for me, part of that is about giving something back and it is my pleasure to do it.

It can be challenging to adapt to the conditions out there, as a lot of people are very, very poor and there is a lot of sickness and death, unfortunately.

But the patients in Uganda are so very appreciative of the hospital and the care it provides."

'One mother dies each second due to pregnancy problems in Uganda'

Dr Alison Love (61), from Lisburn, a retired obstetrician and gynaecologist, left for a five week stay in Uganda last weekend. Dr Love is married to Adrian (62), a farmer and retired doctor, and they have three children and three grandchildren. She says:

As I am retired, I am in the enviable position to have the time to take part in this work; it is my third time visiting Kiwoko Hospital.

There is a big maternity unit in the hospital and I will be helping there, as well as doing a bit of teaching.

I was born in west Africa and this has given me a sense of how differently the world is divided up. There are so many mothers in Uganda who don't have a good experience at birth, and so many die and babies die, too.

I feel quite passionate about it and I've been teaching in Africa to try and improve the situation.

One mother dies every second due to pregnancy-related problems and there is a huge population of women in Uganda.

The statistics are quite shocking.

Whereas eight in 100,000 women in the UK die from pregnancy-related problems, the figure out there is 480 in 100,000.

The hospital provides terrific service and care for the patients. It is situated in a rural area which is very poor and where people live a hand-to-mouth existence.

The community out there are inspiring, though, in that they are happy and put a very positive spin on things, even though life is tough for them.

Illness in Africa can destroy a person's ability to earn their daily bread and there is no welfare system, so to keep the hospital going, a lot of fundraising goes on all year.

Anyone who wants to can make a donation via the website.

And those who do donate can be assured that every penny is used effectively and none of it is wasted."

'They have a desire to learn which is really humbling for me'

Trevor Anderson (57) from Belfast, an ICT training manager at the Ulster Hospital, will be making his fourth trip to Uganda, where he will be taking the lead on delivering bespoke training packages as dictated by the Kiwoko Hospital ICT administrator. Trevor is married to Sharon, a classroom assistant, and they have three grown-up children and two grandchildren. He says:

This will be my fourth trip to the hospital, and it is habit forming. Once you have gone out, it's very hard not to go back again. There are so many benefits you can bring and so much to be done out there, and the whole ethos of the place is amazing.

The Trust is very good to us and allows us to take a week's special leave along with a week's annual leave to make the trip.

It is just so very different out there and the facilities are basic in comparison to what we are used to in our hospitals.

Where doctors in Belfast can order CT scans or MRI's, they don't have the capability in Uganda to do that and it is amazing what they are working with in the hospital. We would be appalled here, and yet they are so grateful for it.

To assist with IT provision we take out equipment that is finished with here and refurbish it for them - and they are so appreciative of it.

The people are so lovely and nothing is too much trouble for them. I carry out training where it is needed and, when it comes to training in Uganda, there is no such thing as people not turning up.

They will be there, because they have a desire to learn and appreciate it so much that it's really humbling.

I will be training people throughout the hospital who need to use technology for a range of purposes and, just sharing whatever knowledge I can, to hopefully make things easier for them.

I remember the first time - coming home and wondering if I had made a difference and if what I had done was any good.

When I went out the second time, the people I had trained were so eager to show me what they had achieved from what they had learned, which gave me such a buzz and such a lift."

To support the work of the hospital, visit

'Losing dad to cancer changed me, so I decided to go'

Janice Bell (46) from Belfast is an ultra- sonographer at the Ulster Hospital and this will be her first trip. She says:

I have a colleague in the X-ray department who has been out to Kiwoko three times and helped set up the radiography department for them. Despite having a university friend living in Africa, I've never had a desire to go out there. However, I lost my father last year to a rare cancer, which was very hard, and I think that experience has changed me. So, when my colleague told me they were looking for people to go out to Uganda, I thought about it and decided to go. They have trained a new ultra-sonographer who is Ugandan and they wanted someone to go out to help him.

It is a bit daunting, as I don't know what to expect. I know it is going to be very different from here, where we are usually looking at small pathologies; in Africa people don't go to hospital until they really have to, so they are dealing with what we call gross pathologies. My preparation has included looking at pathologies for TB, malaria and HIV. While I'm there, I will be helping to scan and also showing the best way to report on scans.

I've also been told that there is a shortage of water, so we don't get to wash every day, which is a bit daunting.

Nonetheless, I'm looking forward to the experience."

'I thank God for this chance to help in Africa'

Murry Ferguson (62), from Londonderry, is a retired microbiologist, who spent his career in Altnagelvin Hospital, where he was a lead biomedical scientist for the Western Trust until his retirement two years ago. Murry is married to Hilda (59), a nurse at Altnagelvin, and they have three grown-up children. This will be his first trip to the hospital in Uganda. He says:

I had planned, if I got to retirement and was able to, that I would do some voluntary work in the Third World. I will be going out to help in the lab and do some training.

"Microbiology was just something I was always interested in and I studied it at Queen's University before starting work in 1976 at Altnagelvin, where I stayed for all my career. I spent the last 10 years at the hospital in a management role.

Our job is diagnostic; it involves looking at viruses and bacteria in a bid to find treatments.

I don't really know what to expect when I go out to Uganda, although I have talked to others in the group to get an idea.

It seems I will be working with two groups - those who work in the labs taking samples from people and looking for infections, and others who are studying for a certificate in microbiology.

When I became a Christian some years ago, I said to God that I would like to help in a Third World country and I'm glad of this chance to do so.

I'm looking forward to it and, hopefully, I won't get too many surprises.

I've prepared what I can in terms of the subjects that the students need me to cover, so hopefully it will be of help to them."

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