“I am ready for anything but, God willing, I should like to be the last one to die of Ebola”.
At the beginning of October 2000 at Lacor hospital (Gulu, North Uganda), a great alarm was raised. Ajok Christine, aged 20, a student nurse, was the first one to fall sick and die. The death of a second nurse and a doctor threw panic among the personnel. The analyses made in Kampala and abroad confirmed the terrifying suspicion: Ebola!
After explaining the seriousness of the situation to everybody, doctor Matthew Lukwiya, the hospital director, left nurses and doctors free to stay or leave. To those who decided to remain he asked if they were ready to take care of the people infected by the virus. “I don’t want to expose more people than necessary to the risk of infection. I shall call you, if necessary; I shall be grateful if you can help me”, he said.
Grace Akullo volunteered. She was 27, coming from a deeply Christian family, mother of two. She had qualified as a nurse in 1999. Grace spent most of her time with the patients. One evening she confided to a Sister nurse: “I don’t feel well”. It was the beginning of her Calvary. “Grace, the battle has just begun, you know it, but we must win”, the doctor told her. In spite of the treatment, her condition worsened. To a friend who went to visit her and who was suggesting words of prayer, Grace answered: “Blessed be God, my rock”. She asked for the anointing of the sick. The doctor insisted: “You must not die!”.
In the night of 17 October, at around 11.30, the doctor did a final round: “Grace, you have done your best to fight the disease, and so have we. Now you can only put your life in the hands of God and accept his will, however incomprehensible it can be… We shall take care of your children”. The patient listened with her eyes closed. “Did you understand me, Grace?” the doctor asked. A slight movement of the head indicated that she had understood. She made it even more manifest by uttering in a whisper: “Abba, Father…”
A few weeks later, it was the doctor who fell ill. He was born at Kitgum on 24 November 1957. After his medical school at Makerere University, Lukwiya had taken a specialisation course in Tropical Paediatrics at Liverpool, where, seeing his brilliant results, he was offered to stay on as a professor. Lokwiya refused. In fact he always refused to expatriate, whether to South Africa or Europe or the Middle East, or even to work in Kampala, the capital.
After raising the alarm on the epidemic, he co-ordinated the personnel’s assistance to the sick for two months: “I ask you to follow all the instructions you have received. We have a gigantic battle to fight.. You have no idea of what you mean to me. Your faces are imprinted in my memory and my heart. You are what is most precious to me in this moment. As for myself, if I should abandon my place now, I shall never be able to come back as a doctor again”.
The deaths multiplied. Adata Margaret, 42 years old, mother of 10 children, nurse; Ajok Simon, nurse; Aol Monique, 22 years, student nurse; Ayello Daniel, 24 years, student nurse.
At the burial of Sr. Pierina Asienzo, 45, of the diocesan Congregation of the Little Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, anaesthetist and student medical assistant in the government hospital, the doctor said: “We have known very hard times: wars, guerrilla fights, pillaging, destruction, epidemics, and every time we have been able to answer with all our forces and win. We believed that we had already overcome the worst; but we hadn’t reckoned with Ebola. It’s a terrible disease… This epidemic has taught me that the medical profession is a calling from God, and the more I see people die, the more I deeply feel my vocation to consecrate my life to the sick. When we make the option for this profession, we do it perhaps for a personal prestige, because we are intelligent, or because we want to save human lives. As for myself, I made my choice, I shall never turn back. I made my option to be ready to die for the others, if necessary.”
He deeply felt his powerlessness in the face of the monster that had installed itself in the region. How to fight it? What could ever help? He was a protestant, a member of the Church of Uganda, and doubtless his faith helped him not to give up.
The day after the death of Santina and Helene, the personnel refused to go back to work. The situation was tense, he spoke of it to an elderly nurse: “I never realized with such great clarity the importance of the work of our personnel. They can do extraordinary things if they are motivated, encouraged, sustained. I often ask myself if I have the right to ask them all this. You and I are of a certain age and have achieved a degree of maturity that helps us understand why we are here, but they, they are so young! You can’t imagine how much I feel the weight of this responsibility”.
Towards the end of November, he felt strange symptoms: the analyses confirmed malaria. But the persistence of fever imposed further examinations. The response from the laboratory was undoubted: “Ebola”! Now it was for him to take to his bed and go under treatment. He spoke with difficulty, his voice was feeble, his face showed extreme pain. “I am ready for anything — he told Dr.Yotti — but, God willing, I should like to be the last one to die of Ebola”. In spite of the care of his collaborators and even of the experts of the World Health Organisation, his conditions worsened. He asked for a lawyer to dictate his last will. He called for his wife and his mother: they prayed together. It was the end. He breathed his last in the night of Tuesday 5 December 2000.