Children in Lacor

Children in Lacor

Greetings from Vernon to Uganda

Vernon surgeon Dr. Ghee Hwang gets ready for annual Apwoyo Gulu fundraiser, to support St. Mary's Hospital in Uganda

A delicious dinner, live entertainment and great prizes are just a few of the highlights of the annual Apwoyo Gulu fundraiser taking place next weekend.

But the real winner is St. Mary’s Hospital in Lacor, Gulu, Uganda, where Vernon surgeon Dr. Ghee Hwang has been working with a team of nurses for the past few years to provide education, medical and surgical supplies and equipment.

Hwang has been teaching surgical skills to the surgical residents, medical students and hospital staff as well as offering his own skills to the surgical program since 2008.

“This is the largest hospital in Northern Uganda, with 474 beds, funded mostly by charitable donations from the Corti Foundation, and survives on around three million Euros ($3.7 million CAN) annually.”

The team of doctors and nurses, in association with Canadian Network for International Surgery (CNIS), has been teaching and working at St. Mary’s, with the mission to return every year to teach peri-operative nursing skills to Ugandan nurses. But to do that, funds are needed.

“Once you’ve been to such places it’s life-changing, it doesn’t matter if it’s Uganda or Nicaragua or the Philippines because suddenly you are out of your normal comfortable habitat and you’re thrown into this place that is totally new and you realize that we have taken a lot of things for granted like shelter and water,” said Hwang. “In Gulu they still have no running water except for at the hospital, so they have to go and get water at the village pump every day.

“In Canada, we have water and food in abundance; in Uganda, most of the people I speak to only have one meal a day; kids go to school with no breakfast.

“People don’t realize that there are places where others are living from day to day so for my team, once they’ve been, it’s changed them; they know they are so fortunate, so they do like to go.”

For Hwang and his team of nurses, which includes Ronda Furlan, Heidi Schelb-Fackler and Annette Timm, returning to Uganda on a regular basis gives them a chance to really have an impact on St. Mary’s staff and patients.

“The reason we keep going to the same place is that a lot of times it takes a few years before you notice the change and the effects of your teaching and also it’s like you’ve paid your dues, so they start to listen to you because you’re committed to going, so when I go there, they say ‘welcome home,’” said Hwang. “So you need to go to the same place to effect change and things have changed; they have an annual report put out by the hospital and so I look at the statistics and the infection rate has come down by at least 50 per cent, the infant mortality rate has also come down, the maternal mortality rate is the best in Uganda, better than the university hospital in Kampala.”

LPN Annette Timm has been sterilization supervisor for many years at Vernon Jubilee Hospital. She has overhauled the way instruments are sterilized at St. Mary’s.

“So they know they are sterilized, we always buy half a year’s supply of sterilizing supplies and take them with us. Annette wrote up the book for them to follow,” said Hwang.  “The most important thing is education so as not to spread infection amongst the ward, so we have taught things such as the fact that alcohol spreads the bugs, it doesn’t kill the bugs; that’s why the nurses are there — to help me educate about these things and to teach them in the operating room and how to handle instruments.”

Hwang said the biggest challenge is staff retention. For many of them, once they have been trained, they are able to look for a position elsewhere that pays them a better wage.

This year’s Apwoyo Gulu fundraiser for St. Mary’s takes place Sept. 27 at 6 p.m. at the Schubert Centre in Vernon. There will be a no-host bar, a slide show featuring St. Mary’s Hospital and the surrounding countryside, and entertainment throughout the evening including the Vernon Jabulani African Drummers.

“I will also talk about the Ebola outbreak at St. Mary’s, which was the epicentre of the biggest Ebola outbreak in Africa in 2000,” said Hwang.

Tickets for the African-themed dinner are $40 each or $320 per table of eight. Sponsorship and donations of at least $20 are tax-deductible, with receipts from CNIS; there are various levels of sponsorship available. Among the many items up for bid, there is a two-night stay with full breakfasts donated by Sparkling Hill Resort and handmade African carvings and crafts. Donations and items for the silent auction would be most welcome.

For more information and tickets, please call Furlan at 250-549-2898, Teresa Hwang at 250-549-1356 or Schelb-Fackler at 250-833-4205.