Daughter carries on Canadian doctor's African legacy
A drop of microbicide gel is photographed as it is squeezed from an applicator at the Baragwanath hospital in Soweto, South Africa, Oct. 28 2005. (AP / Denis Farrell, File)
In many ways, Montreal-born surgeon Lucille Teasdale is to Africa what Norman Bethune is to China, yet she is hardly a household name in Canada.
Teasdale moved to Uganda in 1961, married an Italian doctor and created what has turned out to be a thriving East African teaching hospital that has survived dictator Idi Amin, an Ebola outbreak, and years of attacks from thousands of brainwashed child soldiers under the control of the messianic guerilla fighter, Joseph Kony.
Teasdale died of AIDS 15 years ago, contracted after operating on an infected patient in the war zone. She continued to work for more than a decade in defiance of the disease.
Bethune, meanwhile, is revered, in large measure for the year he spent in China in the late 1930s as a heroic battlefield surgeon for Chinese communists fighting to repel Japanese invaders.
"It is strange. You hear about Bethune everywhere," Teasdale's Italian-based, Ugandan-born daughter, Dr. Dominique Corti, said in a recent interview. "She stayed 35 years, and the thing doubled after she died."
The "thing" is St. Mary's Lacor Hospital and it is the legacy of Corti's parents: 600 staff and 350 resident students who treat 250,000 patients annually, half of them children, in an area where two-thirds of the population lives on $1 a day.
St. Mary's has churned out a generation's worth of homegrown Ugandan doctors and nurses. It runs on an annual budget of less than $5 million.
Teasdale and her husband, Piero Corti, who died in 2003, are buried in a corner of the hospital grounds.
Dominique Corti was in Canada recently to commemorate the 50th anniversary of her mother's arrival in Africa. It was a low-profile, low-budget visit. She spoke to students and other groups to drum up support in Canada for the foundation that carries on her deceased parents' work.
Corti reflected on her mother's legacy and her connections to Africa and Canada. Teasdale has been recognized with an Order of Canada, her own postage stamp and is featured in a "Canadian minute" history commercial. But she's not widely known like Bethune, Terry Fox or any number of Olympic athletes or cultural icons.
Teasdale's greatest achievement, her daughter says, was "looking at the patient first, not accepting that since you're in a poor place with poor people you should do with a substandard level of care. You should give them the best you have, all the time."
Corti is determined to resuscitate interest in her parents' modest philanthropic enterprise in her mother's home country. In the last six years, the annual contributions to the Teasdale-Corti Foundation coming from Canada have grown from about $100,000 to $300,000, she says.
Things changed in 2005 when senior officials from Canada's International Development Research Centre approached her in Rome looking for ways to partner. For years before that most of the foundation's donors came from Italy, mainly because her well-heeled father had many good connections and a large wealthy family.
"My first job is finding money for the hospital. Showing our story can make people understand it is worth helping, there are things worthwhile over there."
Most of her Canadian donors are private benefactors, but she's hopeful that at least one large pharmaceutical company might jump on the foundation's bandwagon.
The federal government has frozen Canada's foreign aid spending until 2015, while the Harper Conservatives have been widely criticized for turning their back on directly funding African countries.
Corti doesn't begrudge the Canadian or Italian governments, neither of which will come close to reaching the United Nations goal for development spending of 0.7 per cent of GDP. Canada's four-year aid freeze will drop its aid spending below 0.3 per cent of gross domestic product.
"We're 0.1 in Italy, so it's even worse -- which is not to say Canada is good, not at all," she said.
"There's only one way to get that to increase -- to get the people to ask for it. If the people don't ask for it, why in heaven's name should the government go and do it?"
Corti's world view was shaped by her Ugandan upbringing. In many ways it was an idyllic elementary school education among African boys and girls. But living inside the hospital, she accompanied her mother through the wards on rounds, giving her a close-up view of the resilience and hardship of her fellow Ugandans.
Corti's parents sent her back to Italy to be schooled when she was 13 as the magnitude of Amin's butchery was sinking in among white ex-pats with the option of a plane ticket to safety. It broke her mother's heart because she swore she would never separate her family.
Corti doesn't blame her parents. She returned to Uganda on holidays, building her own unbreakable bond.
"I really saw the hospital as my home. I didn't see it as something that was competing for my parents' affections," she recalled.
Today, she sees northern Uganda coming back to life after enduring its latest round of terror that lasted for a generation -- attacks from Kony's Lords Resistance Army that transformed the north into a wasteland of displaced people's camps and fallow, overgrown fields.
St. Mary's was a refuge during that time. It was a destination for Uganda's "night commuters." Internally displaced people would march long distances each night to the grounds of St. Mary's to sleep in a human sea of twisted limbs to avoid Kony's marauding hordes. At the height of night commuting, less than a decade ago, the hospital hosted 30,000 visitors per night.
In the early days of Kony's terror in the late 1980s, his fighters would come to the hospital three or four times a week to loot. They preyed on the young local staffers.
"If they didn't have enough, they'd take away the nurses. Many times my parents had to go out the next day with box loads of money and drugs to exchange for the nurse," said Corti.
Throughout it all, Corti said her parents were determined never to compromise on the care their local patients received.
Teasdale's dedication to them is borne out in her last known letter, penned to a friend five months before her death.
In it, she describes how her remission from AIDS ended and her weight plummeted to 33 kilograms.
"For the past three weeks, I have been taking a 1500 cc IV solution to rehydrate myself. Since I am usually free Saturday afternoons and Sundays, I managed to continue without missing a single day of work," Teasdale wrote.
She described the return of Kony's fighters from Sudan the previous month, how they were killing civilians, burning their huts, stealing their livestock.
"They kidnap 10- to 15-year-olds and either sell them as slaves to the Sudanese Arabs, or brainwash them and turn them into guerrillas," Teasdale wrote.
"And now the rebels are planting mines along the paths. The injuries they cause are so severe that we have to amputate: last week a nine-year-old lost both legs and an arm."
Teasdale said she was "depressed and tired of the fighting" but hoped the feeling would pass.
"In the afternoon, after the outpatient clinic, I usually lie in bed and read," she wrote in closing.
"Bye for now, Lucille & Piero."