Matthew Lukwiya, Passion, and Competence

There’s a tragedy I see often: well-meaning people who lack of competence to get their ideas off the ground, to be able to help the world in the ways that they think it needs help. And they are amazing ideas, to be sure. (I think this is the part where I’m going to upset people….Please understand that I’m not saying that I know any better than these people, only that I wish I could help them.) I see this most tragically in chinuch. Teaching, since it is not the highest paying job in the world (and that’s a gross understatement here in Israel) is done by a group of people self-selected – not necessarily for ability, but desire. People who want to teach children are the ones who do. And a job that delicate requires a certain kind of intuition, a certain kind of competence that can’t always be taught.

But I digress. What I wanted to get at is that there are people who are really good at things, and there are people who truly have their hearts in the right place, but to find both present in abundance is rare. This is why I was really, really impressed by Doctor Matthew Lukwiya, fom Uganda. Lukwiya isn’t a household name or anything, but he should be. In the fall of 2000, Ebola broke out in Uganda. The fact that it “only” took 173 lives can largely be attributed to Dr. Lukwiya. You see, containing a disease as incurable, deadly, and contagious as Ebola is requires a very special mix – a fierce determination to help, even in the face of possible infection, and the professional rigor required to properly isolate existing victims and diagnose new ones. These qualities are precisely what Dr. Lukwiya had, and why he was so effective. A less dedicated man would have run away in fear, and a less competent man would have gotten infected himself before he even started containing the threat. I’ll stop talking about the story. Read it for yourself. Here’s a bit I copied from the Wikipedia article on him:

On the morning of 8 October, Lukwiya informed staff of his suspicion that the illness was a viral hemorrhagic fever. That afternoon, a group of local community leaders came to the hospital reporting that entire families were dying in their villages. He ignored the usual bureaucratic protocols and placed a direct call to Dr. Sam Okware, Uganda’s commissioner of community health services, who dispatched a team from the Uganda Virus Research Institute to take blood samples. By the time the team arrived, Lukwiya had already set up an isolation ward for suspected Ebola cases, in line with the WHO guidelines. The special ward was staffed by three doctors, five nurses and five nursing assistants, all volunteers.[1] When a South African lab confirmed the Ebola outbreak in October 15 , and a WHO delegation arrived in Gulu, they were astonished at the efficiency of the operation.

The crisis continued to worsen. By the third week of October, the number of Ebola patients had increased to almost 60, overwhelming the volunteers in the isolation ward. Lukwiya ordered other nurses to assist the patients and tried to lead by example, working with Ebola patients from 7 am to 8 pm. However, despite instituting risk minimization procedures, including wearing of robes, multiple gloves, surgical masks and goggles, hospital workers continued to fall ill. Twelve more died. At the funeral of an Italian nun on 7 November, he attempted to rally the morale of his workers: “It is our vocation to save life. It involves risk, but when we serve with love, that is when the risk does not matter so much. When we believe our mission is to save lives, we have got to do our work.”

Matters reached a breaking point in late November. While the national epidemic had already peaked, St. Mary’s endured a terrible day. In the 24-hour period ending at the dawn of 24 November, seven patients died, three of which were health workers. Two of these were nurses who did not work in the isolation ward. The thought of infections being passed to health workers who did not directly care for Ebola patients panicked many and the nurses mutinied. The day-shift did not go to work; instead 400 health workers, nearly the entire staff of St. Mary’s, gathered in the assembly hall of the nursing school. When Lukwiya rushed down to ask what they wanted, at least one nurse yelled that the hospital should be closed. Lukwiya silenced the nurses, most of whom he had trained himself, by stating that if the hospital closed he would leave Gulu and never return. He then spoke on how he had let himself be abducted by the rebels rather than risk St. Mary’s and that they would be responsible for the deaths that would result if the hospital closed. After hours of contentious discussion that extended into the afternoon, Lukwiya switched back to a conciliatory approach, stating that he would remain no matter if everyone left. The meeting ended with him and the nurses singing a song together; he had prevailed.

I simply read the article and was floored by it. He was a truly impressive man. Unfortunately, though, he died in the process of ending the epidemic. Dr. Lukwiya was a hero whose example we ought to emulate – both in his passion and his competence. May he rest in peace.

2 Responses to “Matthew Lukwiya, Passion, and Competence”

  1. Eli says:

    Stacy blogged about this guy some time ago:

  2. dfb1968 says:

    I remember an old Penn & Teller HBO show where they were debating the greatest person to ever live, and after batting around a bunch of famous names, they agreed that without a doubt it was: Norman Borlaug. The man invented dwarf wheat, and as a result, single-handedly fed over a billion people. And almost noone has ever heard of him.

    BTW, nice blog. Great cartoons. Trep sent me.

Leave a Reply