Richard is felled

October 13, 2009 in General, News

rod_01Richard O’Dwyer SJ set out for Africa this time last year, to work with the JRS, first in Ethiopia, and then in Southern Sudan after Christmas in Kenya. He has combined the know-how of a trained quantity surveyor with the eye and pen of a reporter in email after email of vivid experiences. His first experience was in Addis Ababa, then in Northern Uganda, ravaged by the Lord’s Resistance Army, then in remote and neglected Lobone in Southern Sudan. He celebrated Easter in Sudan and Pentecost in Uganda’s Gulu. He registered the shocking kidnapping of Sharon Cummins of GOAL. In August he was back in Lomerati, Sudan. These months of incessant travel and inculturation have taken their toll on Richard. Read his latest.


Richard O’Dwyer SJ

The inevitable befell me on 1st August, which befalls virtually everyone who works and lives in Africa. A group of colleagues and I were travelling in two vehicle convoys from Juba (the capital of South Sudan) back to Lobone. It is a demanding 7- 8 hour journey via northern Uganda and back out again into South Sudan, as there is no direct route from Juba to Lobone. I thought that I was coming down with the ‘flu as I was just feeling rotten throughout the journey, coughing and experiencing soreness in my back, elbows and knees.

Left to my own devices and if the day’s journey had gone to plan I would have arrived back in Lobone that Saturday evening and begun dosing myself with paracetemol. However, a delay leaving Juba, (ladies doing some last minute shopping!) and a long delay at the border ensured that we were not going to be able to re-cross the border before dusk. These delays were providential in themselves resulting in our decision to spend the night in Kitgum in northern Uganda. However, other events fell happily into place for me. I had intended to stay in the JRS residence but the only guest room was already occupied. I had the option to stay in a hotel but opted instead to stay in the AVSI (an Italian NGO) compound where I had stayed before and because I had met some of the AVSI people who were always hospitable. The guest house there was quite full but an Italian guest kindly opted to share a room with a companion to enable me to stay the night. I owe a great deal to that young woman’s act of kindness!

Coincidentally, there was a birthday party in AVSI that night for Michaela, and he had invited, among others, two colleagues from JRS Kitgum, Stephie and Adriana, who came to Africa at the same time as me. I declined to go the party and went off to bed, feeling exhausted from the journey and the flu. Stephie and Adriana dropped in to check on me and brought me a snack around 8pm. When I thanked them but told me them to bring the food back to the party, they looked at one another and left me. I had scarcely lain down again when they brought an Italian doctor, Fausto, in to examine me. Happily, they did not have far to go to fetch Fausto, he was also attending the party. My colleagues know me well enough to know that when I refuse food, sickness is not being feigned! Fausto took one look at me and suggested we go right away to St Joseph’s mission where he would perform a blood test. He suspected I had malaria.

As we drove over the broken tarmac roads of Tatum, he explained that because I was taking doxycycline, to prevent malarial infection, the test for malaria might not be positive. When we reached the hospital a nurse took a blood sample immediately and he took my personal details and examined me. Fifteen minutes later, the lab confirmed that the test for malaria was positive. Fausto immediately put me on Coartem, a three day course of six tablets per day, which normally kills the malaria and stops it from multiplying in your liver. He advised me to stay in Kitgum until I had finished the course of tablets.

I felt much better the next day, Sunday, and was tempted to travel back to Lobone with my colleagues but I decided to follow doctor’s orders and remain in Uganda. I felt less well on Monday and even worse on Tuesday, nevertheless I went to say goodbye to my Kitgum colleagues and go back to Lobone. Our Regional Director of JRS East Africa had arrived on Monday and was on his way to Lobone to open our new school. As I started to say goodbye and began to hug my colleagues, I was promptly told that I was burning with fever and to go back to St Joe’s hospital.

When I arrived back at the hospital, Fausto had gone to West Nile and I saw his wife, Francesca, a gynaecologist in St Joe’s. Being the only doctor, apart from Fausto in the hospital, she saw me in her office in the maternity wing! I was feeling faint and passed out while talking to Francesca. I woke up as I was being lifted onto a trolley. I later discovered that the trolley was in the Delivery Room, next to Francesca’s office! They put an IV into my left arm and started me on a bag of dextrose, followed by saline and finally by a bag of quinine! Francesca was 8 months pregnant and she told me she was admitting to a private room in the maternity wing because she was not going to walk all the way across the compound to the male medical ward! By the time I was taking the quinine which was due to take 4 hours I was feeling very weak but managed to notice the level of quinine had hardly moved in two hours. I felt so dreadful, I did not really care whether I lived or died and wondered if I would be buried in Uganda or Sudan! However, a nurse came and opened the valve on the IV. The quinine started to flow and after another two hours I felt I was making a miraculous recovery and had discarded my musings on burial arrangements!

Just to note a couple of things about hospitals in Uganda and as far as I know in many African countries. Hospitals do not provide food; your family or friends have to feed you for the duration of your stay! Because of understaffing, a family member or friend must remain with the patient at all times, to accompany you to the bathroom and in case of an emergency to call the nurse or medical staff. Mind you, the Irish health service might take note of my being given the result of my blood test in 15 minutes on a Saturday night! The IV stand did not have wheels and whenever I had to leave my room to visit the bathroom a nurse had to disconnect my IV from the tube.

My stay in hospital lasted about 36 hours, one night and the better part of two days. The hospital is 40 years old at least and a very basic building, but the cleaning staff washed the floors a couple of times a day: northern Uganda is very dusty and much hotter than the mountains of Lobone. The corridors and bathrooms were kept remarkably clean. The nursing staff brought me a flask of hot water to bathe and a bar of soap. Stephie and Adriana, my JRS Colleagues in Kitgum took it in turns to stay with me at all times during my stay in St Joe’s hospital. Quinine is very toxic and has a lot of side effects and I suffered one of the most common ones: I went quite deaf! This is great for sleeping in: you don’t hear barking dogs or noisy vehicles starting their engines in the early morning!

I cannot remember feeling so ill in all my life as on that fevered Tuesday, thank God it was for a mercifully short time! Rarely in my life did I experience such great kindness as I received from the medical and nursing staff and my JRS colleagues, Stephie and Adriana in Kitgum. After I left hospital, Timothy, the cook in AVSI prepared a delicious lunch and dinner every day for me for the 6 days after I left hospital. He also washed my clothes without being asked. I will always remember, the evening that I left hospital; all mothers on the veranda of the maternity wing smiling and waving goodbye to me as I climbed into the JRS vehicle. I was a stranger among you and you took me in!