Dr. Matthew Lukwiya (Dr. Matthew, as he was known to his colleagues and
patients), was the medical superintendent of St. Mary’s Hospital in northern
Uganda. He had helped make it one of the best medical facilities in East
Africa. He was also a home-grown hero in the scrub savanna of northern Uganda.
Children playing in the dust-blown streets of Gulu, a city a few miles from St.
Mary’s Hospital, had for years been singing a little ditty about the doctor. In
it, they dared each other to jump from a high place. A broken leg would not be
a problem, they sang; Dr. Matthew would fix it.
In his 17 years at St. Mary’s, a Catholic missionary hospital, much of what Dr.
Matthew fixed had nothing to do with medicine. A soft-spoken, deeply religious
man of 42, with a wide, easy smile and a slight paunch, he had stood up to a
bizarre bunch of local rebels called the Lord’s Resistance Army. When rebels
came to the hospital in 1989 to kidnap some Italian nuns living there, Dr.
Matthew (who was an evangelical Protestant, not a Catholic) met them at the
front gate and persuaded them to take him instead. He marched around in the
bush for a week in his doctor’s gown before the rebels let him go. He later
opened the walled compound at St. Mary’s as a sanctuary from the rebels. Until
Ebola scared them away, about 9,000 people entered the grounds of St. Mary’s
every evening to sleep in peace.
Biomedical researchers admit profound ignorance about Ebola, a viral bleeding
fever that first appeared in Africa in the late 1970’s. There is no cure, and
researchers do not know where the virus hides between human outbreaks. They do
know, though, that the blood of an acutely ill Ebola patient is one of the most
infectious and deadly substances on earth. The Ebola epidemic that broke out in
Fall, 2000 in Uganda and lasted until January, 2001 was the largest ever. More
than 400 people were infected; 173 died.
Dr. Matthew, however, kept all kin away from infectious patients. He allowed
only doctors, nurses and nursing assistants to go near them. His system helped
contain the epidemic, reducing sickness and mortality rates among family
members. At the same time, though, it placed health-care workers in close
quarters with highly infectious patients and increased their chances of
contracting Ebola. Whether it was against rebels or viruses, Dr. Matthew made a
habit of taking personal risks for the sake of his hospital. In a pleasant but
dogged way, he insisted that his nurses do likewise. What was normal for Dr.
Matthew was a low-key combination of geniality and unyielding resolve. He
flatly refused to allow anyone or anything, be it messianic rebels or bleeding
fevers, to destroy his hospital. To that end, he sometimes took chances that
threatened his life, that bordered on recklessness. Yet he was such a solid
medical man, such a devout Christian and such a nice guy that hardly anyone
noticed his extraordinary appetite for risk.
Like most of the doctors and nurses, Dr. Matthew did not always wear eye
protection. Babu Washington Stanley, the night-shift nurse who called him out of
bed on November 20, the night Simon Ajok erupted in blood, clearly remembers
that the doctor did not put on goggles or a plastic face shield that night.
Although no one can be sure, this lapse may have been what infected Dr.
Matthew. In his rush to help a dying nurse whom he had helped train, he
violated his own rules. He thought with his heart. Dr. Matthew caught the
infectious disease himself, got progressively sicker and died of the Ebola virus
on December 5.
"It is our vocation to save life," he said in a talk recorded by Father
Matthew Odong, the vicar general of the Catholic archdiocese of Gulu and Dr.
Matthew’s longtime friend. ”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." During the height of the Ebola
epidemic last fall, Dr. Matthew had been quoted almost daily in the Ugandan
press. He had become a national icon: the fearless field commander at the
center of a biological war that threatened everyone in the country.
Father Odong said
that he hoped his friend’s story will offer his fellow Africans a new definition
of what it means to be a big man in Africa. "It is not about getting rich and
having power," he said. "We should tell everyone the story of Dr. Matthew."
Whether or not his story survives, its last chapter did turn out as Dr. Matthew
had hoped. His hospital and his nation defeated Ebola, at least this time
around. With no new cases in the previous 21 days, W.H.O. declared on Feb. 6,
2001 that the epidemic was effectively over. The isolation ward at St. Mary’s
was closed and scrubbed down and reopened the month as a children’s ward. And
Dr. Matthew’s solitary prayer in the week before he died was answered: among the
health-care workers who fought Ebola at St. Mary’s, he was the last to die.