NEWS FROM LACOR HOSPITAL – FALL 2021
When you think about Lacor, what comes to mind? The answers vary from person to person. The heroic stories that come out of this remarkable place are endless, with over 60 years under their belt and countless challenges faced. We wonder where all its resilience comes from. Some explain it with Lucille’s love for her patients, Piero’s passion for making the world a better place, Matthew’s dedication to his people, Dominique’s strength to build on her family heritage, and the Ugandans who call Lacor home. But it is all of these attributes that make Lacor so unique.
Lacor has always played a key role in helping the surrounding population in times of crisis. The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit hard in Uganda. In the past few months, we have seen high counts, with 42 deaths and 1,500 new illnesses each day.
After Kampala, Gulu District has the country’s second highest number of new infections. The wave seems to be slowing down lately resulting in the lifting of some of the COVID-19 restrictions.
Being the only hospital with an ICU in Northern Uganda, Lacor Hospital has been a key pillar in the COVID-19 response since 2020. As of August 6th 2021, Lacor has tested at least 4,000 samples, capturing over 800 positive cases (including approximately 86 hospital staff), and admitting 300 confirmed cases.
When we struggle, we look to our mentors who faced similar challenges before us. This issue presents stories about mentorship, responsibility, and heritage as part of the solution to the pandemic.
The Covid-19 pandemic has placed a heavy weight on people across the globe, with many exhausted by its scope and longevity.
Electrical engineer Santo Uma Opoka recalls working with his mentor, Brother Elio from a very young age, absorbing knowledge from an extraordinary man of immense moral stature, bravery, and humour—a man with faith that if he did his best for people, he would be safe no matter the dangers. Elio was Piero Corti’s trusted colleague and the backbone of Lacor Hospital since 1985. He was also the heart and soul of Saint Jude’s orphanage.
During the first wave of Covid-19, Elio got sick, and Santo was shocked to witness his mentor weakened, gasping for breath. Faced with Elio’s condition, he recalled the time when Elio explained that he was one of the best persons he “really and fully” trained as a technician. He remembered when Elio told him that his name means “holy” in Italian, making him a perfect partner. This idea always made Santo smile, but faced with Elio’s illness, he found himself fixing Lacor’s Uninterruptable Power Supply System (UPSS) by himself.
Unable to focus, he took a break from the UPSS and looked out the window at the cloudy sky. Santo experienced most of his life under Elio’s guidance. He remembered Elio full of pizzazz, looking—as everyone commented—like Sean Connery. For fun, Elio would use his 4×4 truck to startle the elephants at Murchison Falls. The elephants would run away, until one day, Elio faced a mother elephant with her child. The elephant charged at the vehicle. Luckily, they got away, Santo was afraid. He felt alive around his mentor, who never had a dull moment. Always adventurous, driving at high speeds, avoiding big holes, Elio and Santo would go across the savannahs, from Lacor Hospital to Karamoja to Kampala. He would fearlessly go anywhere for Lacor Hospital and St-Jude’s Orphanage.
Santo took a break from his reminiscences when he sensed a solution to the problem with the UPSS. With the help of a colleague, he tried some creative steps before reconnecting the UPSS.
Santo was hesitant and nervous that his creativity would be useless without Elio. The feeling in his stomach reminded him of his brushes with death during his wartime travels, when he and Elio would drive on tire tracks to avoid landmines. Once, a car exploded right behind them. These dangerous trips were made to save lives. During the war, Lacor staff members were often kidnapped by rebels. Elio was among the brave, delivering ransom in return for kidnapped nurses. Santo was very worried about his safety during those times.
He remembered the faith of Brother Elio, and how he would always find time to pray, no matter the situation. He would even pray before a construction job. Santo now prayed for his mentor’s recovery from Covid, and to find the solution to the challenge in front of him. As his faith renewed, the UPSS started to work.
At that time, Elio needed to be transferred to the National Mulago Hospital in Kampala because Lacor staff considered that Mulago would offer him a better care for his rapidly deteriorating condition. Worried about his mentor’s worsening condition, Santo remembered how, during the war, Elio developed many innovations. His goal was that every piece of hospital equipment would work, and his deep knowledge of the machines surpassed formally trained technicians. Through wars and epidemics, Elio constantly improved Lacor’s equipment. His absence was felt by everyone at the hospital, but no one thought about it more than Santo. After nearly one month running smoothly, the UPSS shuts off unexpectedly—another complication.
On November 11th 2020, Brother Elio passed away at the Mulago Hospital after fighting hard against the Coronavirus. Santo struggled to even talk about it. He looked at the broken UPSS, unable to stand the idea that his work must be done without his mentor.As an ocean of emotion flooded over him, he entertained the idea of quitting.
He found it almost impossible to work during this time of sadness and grief, a time that reminded him of the Ebola epidemic, when staff members were mortified by a devastating disease. In the year 2000, Elio had the dangerous job of burying the deceased safely. It was challenging due to the logistics and materials, and the danger of contracting the virus. Santo regarded the UPSS and his co-worker, who convinced him to try again, reassuring Santo that his grief was normal and that Lacor needed him.
Lacor Hospital is a big complex servicing over 250,000 patients each year. These patients must have access to water, light, and electricity. During a 2015 interview, Elio said, “If you help Lacor, you shall receive 100-fold of what you have given.” For Elio—as for many—Lacor was a place of hope and dreams. He willingly gave his life for Lacor, investing over thirty years to the hospital, and loving every minute of it. They say his time came to an end when it did because he had already experienced the height of his true potential as a hero. He did his work in the hope of inspiring others to do better, including his protégé.
Santo figured out the problem with the UPSS, and he has continued to tackle complex technical problems in the year following the passing of Brother Elio. He feels inspired to be like his mentor, to continue his work for the love of Lacor and his people.
Dominique Corti’s husband Contardo Vergani says in the documentary Un Cammino per la Vita that the bottom line is quite simple: Dominique loves Lacor Hospital and the Acholi people. Lacor is her life’s purpose, as her aunt Paula Bottina Corti tells us in the film.
Dominique was born at the hospital—it is the root of her entire life. Sister Patrizia Clerici was the very first to see Dominique, delivering her from her mother, cherished Canadian icon Dr. Lucille Teasdale, who died in 1996 from AIDS contracted while operating on wounded soldiers. Lacor Hospital also lost the beloved Dr. Matthew Lukwiya, whom Dr. Lucille and her husband Dr. Piero Corti envisioned as their successor as hospital director. Dr. Matthew sadly died during the 2000 Ebola epidemic, despite his heroic efforts to contain the disease and protect his community and staff.
Lately, during the second wave of the pandemic in Uganda, Dominique traveled to Lacor Hospital to support her Acholi colleagues. The only other COVID treatment unit in Northern Uganda (about 3 million people) is at the Gulu Regional Referral hospital, which has a bed capacity of 20 patients, implying that Lacor receives referrals of very sick COVID-19 cases from many districts in the region and beyond.
Lacor has designated 5 ICU beds and 45 non-ICU beds for COVID. However, Lacor never refuses patients if help is possible. On average, admitted patients with severe disease take 2-3 weeks in the COVID Treatment Unit, with some being discharged to the general medical ward for continued care following a negative COVID test.
Along with many others, Dominique ensures her parents’ legacy at Lacor by uniting efforts from abroad. Lacor is a citadel of health, which continues to operate thanks to the contributions of each of you.