Dr. Alphons Matovu
I am sitting in the dark office in Kamuli Hospital listening to Dr. Alphons Matovu speak with Andrea. As he talks I glance around his office – his degrees hang on the wall, a few papers line his desk but it is clear that his place is not behind a desk. As the sick line up outside a nurse comes to his door. Stepping outside he murmurs to her and pats her arm. She smiles softly and turns away. He must go, the sick are lining up. We follow him outside where the heat greets us as do the patients who are here in Kamuli Mission Hospital.
Located in eastern Uganda, Kamuli Mission Hospital serves a district with a population of roughly 750,000. Home to some of the most primitive living conditions, Kamuli District is a wide open plateau filled with lush green tropics, rice paddies, palm trees and gentle rolling hills. People here are poor. Subsistence farming is the main occupation. The roads are few and rough, only traversable with a four wheel drive car. Cows wander the downtown of Kamuli Town, as well as goats. Water is pumped from a town well and the residents line up with their yellow Jerry cans and carry them home on ancient bikes or balanced on their heads. Most of these people will never visit a doctor in a hospital. Most will ail, heal or die in their homes surrounded by family.
I am on rounds with Dr. Alphons. In an amazing gesture of trust he has allowed me and my camera to join him while he does his rounds. We start with the maternity ward looking at women with surgical deliveries. Dressed in the clothing they wore to the hospital, the new mothers lay on thin metal beds with thin plastic mattresses. There is no air conditioning, curtains, beeping machines or private bathrooms. Lying with their wee babies next to them these mothers are fighting pain, fear and exhaustion. Their families camp outside providing meals, care, rehabilitation and company. Gathered on the shaded maternity porch, newborns wriggle in their grandmother’s arms waiting to be taken inside for a feeding. Dr. Alphons’s gentle voice floats up to me as I snap pictures of a young mother, only 17 who after laboring three days with twins was saved by his skill and practice. Only one twin survives, a beautiful, tiny baby who fists flail upwards. Dr. Alphons’s hands cup the mother’s head as he bends down to ask her questions. I can’t hear her replies but she slowly pulls up her top and I see her belly. A long, ropelike incision travels down her entire torso. This is triage medicine, done to save lives, not for vanity. He nods, happy to see it clean without swelling. Painfully she pulls down the shirt and lays back. His eyes are filled with tenderness and grit. He wants to make sure I have witnessed and recorded. This is what he wants changed.
There are only two doctors at Kamuli Mission Hospital. I ask when he takes days off. He shakes his head. There are no days off – ever. He and Dr. Alex will cover for one another if traveling is necessary but there are no vacations, weekends or golf games. Being a doctor here means sacrifice. It is not a means to upwards mobility but a dedication to saving lives, taking calculated gambles and knowing not everyone will be saved.
We walk into the malaria ward. A mother sits next to a metal crib, her infant with an IV in her tiny forehead, the only vein big enough to take the needle. Malaria is prevalent in children and if treated, is curable. I think of Children’s Hospital, the couches, quiet halls, family visiting rooms and brightly painted walls. Here the mother sits on a hard concrete floor for hours, watching her baby sleep. Dr. Alphons walks to the child and gently holds his hand to her head. He smiles at the mother and murmurs to her in her native tongue. Turning to me he smiles, she will be alright he assures me, this baby will survive. I see how his gentle, calm magic has touched the young mother. She stands, straightens and goes out of the room for a moment. She is visibly more relaxed.
The following week, we met with Uganda’s Deputy Minister, Rebecca Kadaga. Dr. Alphons, now in a stately black suit, sits with us as we describe what ITW wants to accomplish in Kamuli, especially with young mothers, a focus for Ms. Kadaga. Dr. Alphons explains how important ultrasound is for his work, how trained sonographers are essential for maternal care and how much respect he has for ITW’s co-founder Kristin DeStigter. Ms. Kadaga is convinced and gives us the thumbs up and more. We are told to go to her for any reason at all – anything we need. We are delighted and relieved. Government support is essential for our mission to be accomplished and we know Dr. Alphons’s reputation and skill was largely responsible for this victory. Having left Kampala, that morning after working all night we offer to take him to lunch with us, to give him a respite from his travels and work. He declines gracefully; he must now he must be off to visit another hospital. There is no fatigue in the lines of his face, no resentment for this hardship. We each shake his hand with gratitude and awe. We are humbled and proud to be working with someone of his caliber. He inspires us.