Harvard, the Roman Catholic Church, and medical Students

Mango season has just finished in South Sudan. This photo was taken as a new day was dawning and dew was lying heavy on the spider webs. I thought it rather pretty

We thought we would devote a special post to talking about The Harvard group. You will have heard us mention them during the previous blog posts and we thought that we would take a little time to elaborate. They have been excellent fellows and their work is inspiring and deserves a special mention.

Harvard is a University that is tied to Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and inside this acropolis lies Thomas Burke, an ER Physician (A+E Consultant to us Brits) who is heading up a project to assist Juba University to train its medical students. The Harvard group have been working hard with this initiative and as well as supplying the university with materiel, they have also provided manpower. During October this year, they started work in JTH and joined me on the Emergency Medical Ward. They provide a permanent presence on the ground and this has resulted in a substantial improvement in healthcare and morale. We have been working very closely together and as a result I have become very close to these guys. They genuinely want to make a difference and the next story explains why but before I go into it, you all need a history lesson.

Juba University moved to Khartoum in the war years and all student training took place up there. The medical students received high quality training and from personal experience, Khartoum trained doctors seem more knowledgeable in some areas than UK trainees.

Prior to independence, Juba University was moved back to Juba and medical students began training there. However, following July 9th, all ties were immediately severed with Khartoum and several thousand South Sudanese students suddenly found themselves back in Juba. The medical school was overstretched and did not have enough lecturers. One predictable result occurred: the medical school shut. It was due to open in September but this was put back to December 5th. December the 5th came and went and the doors remained firmly shut. It will allegedly open in January 2012. We will see.

However, something else happened which was not predicted. The descent of 5,000 students to Juba resulted in an immediate shortage of housing and as a result 131 medical students were made homeless. These medical students walk the streets and shelter in alleyways at night. As well as being homeless, they are jobless, penniless, and hungry. The only way to receive a salary lies in their getting a degree and with the medical school shut, this hope is becoming more and more distant.

Earlier on this year, Thomas received a knock on his door. Several medical students were stood outside clutching the wasted, emaciated body of one of their friends. This person, also a medic, was dying of malnutrition. The Harvard folk lost no time and immediately set up a medical student feeding programme which has brought numerous souls back from the brink. However, the problems with housing remain.

As a UK doctor I feel a special affinity to this group of people and in many ways they are my brethren. If I was a few years younger and born in South Sudan I would have shared their fate. They joined medical school for the same reasons as I did. They work hard for the same reasons I do. And now I am watching tomorrow’s doctors die, waiting for their medical school to re-open.

Last Thursday myself and Chol, one of the medical students, paid an old friend a visit. We waited briefly in the reception of St Joseph’s Cathedral before being ushered into the office of the Archbishop of Juba, His Grace Paulino Lukudu Loro. He remembered me from our last contact three years ago and we talked at length about the Comboni missionaries and times gone by. After the introductions, Chol began talking about the problems facing medical students.

South Sudanese people are humble yet proud people. Proud people find it difficult to ask for help (some might say humiliating). Chol was a proud man, yet true to South Sudanese form was also mightily humble. He began by giving His Grace a concise but deeply moving account of the plight of the medical students. His Grace listened solemnly to Chol’s tales and I could tell that the Archbishop’s heart overflowed with sorrow.

At the end, His Grace looked us both in the eye. He resolutely offered the full support of the Roman Catholic Church, starting with the allocation of a healthy sized plot of land to build a hostel for 131 medical students.

Left to right: an extremely happy Chol and His Grace Paulino Lukudu Loro

Throughout South Sudan’s tumultuous history, the church has always been a grass roots presence in an otherwise hopeless existence. It has provided food, shelter, healthcare, sanitation, and most importantly hope, when all other organisations turn their backs. Now the church would come to the aid of tomorrow’s doctors.

And so the first ray of hope in this horrible nightmare came to pass. It was manifested beautifully in Chol’s smile as we walked away from our meeting. I shall take that memory to the grave with me.

Now we need money to build a hostel….

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