Uganda: Physician trades comfort for serving his homeland

Dr Fred Babumba left Uganda for greener pastures in Southern Africa, but he has never written off his patients back home, writes Agnes Asiimwe.

The silver Mercedes pulled in smoothly up the driveway and parked just outside the garage of his suburban home on the South Coast in Port Shepstone, in South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal province. The doctor was home. A few minutes later, the remote-controlled gate slid open again, his son and daughter, both attending nearby schools, were returning from school in their BMW. For Dr Fred Babumba and his family, life couldn’t be better.

He is a Ugandan of a rare quality. Despite all the comforts and the success, Dr Babumba, 47, has managed to shake himself out of his comfort zone and give back to Uganda, something not many Ugandans in the Diaspora can say they have done. Rather than join in the chorus to complain bitterly about the backwardness of his homeland, Babumba has decided to do something about it. He is investing back home.

In the last two years, he has been coming to Uganda every four months to operate on patients. Now, his longtime desire to have a quality health facility in the country is about to be realised when Nakasero Private Hospital opens for business in January.
But life wasn’t so good in 1986 after he completed his degree at Makerere University Medical School. A doctor’s pay was meagre and he promptly moved to Kenya where he worked at the Aga Khan Hospital.

In 1990, the government of Botswana went scouting for doctors in Kenya and he was among the 18 doctors who were recruited.

“I was not content at just being a general practitioner and wanted to specialise as a surgeon,” he said.

He applied for post graduate medical study in South Africa. In July 1993, he moved to South Africa to study orthopedic surgery at the University of Natal, Durban. Five years later, in 1998, freshly qualified as an orthopedic surgeon, he relocated to the coastal town of Port Shepstone (100km South of Durban) and opened a private practice which has since become the biggest and busiest orthopaedic practice in the region. He also works part-time at a government hospital.

His main area of specialisation is knee and hip joint replacements. He performs 150 joint replacements annually in addition to another 700 other orthopaedic related cases.

“The health care in Uganda is underdeveloped, the surgical facilities are backward and my dream was to put up a modern 80 bed private hospital, a venture of about $5m,” he said.

But he knew it was too big a project for him alone. He got an idea to first mobilise the Ugandan specialists based in South Africa and the specialists in Uganda and get them interested.
“I talked to Ugandan specialists in South Africa; many of them have written off Uganda, they are not interested. “They are in their own comfortable zones here, they are well paid, children are in school, the living environment is affluent, they don’t even dream of ever going to work in Uganda.”

He spoke to a number of businessmen in Uganda. “They welcome the idea but when it comes to the actual putting down of the money then it’s a different story.” While he was still thinking of how to make his idea work, he met Dr Ian Clarke who was already running a hospital at Old Kampala. “He had converted a hostel into a hospital, then he started building a proper hospital. I was glad, I could see someone with the same vision.”

Babumba looked at Clarke’s hospital drawing and he visited during construction, “and I think generally he put up a very good physical structure,” (at International Hospital Kampala [IHK] in Namuwongo). For the last two years, Babumba has been coming several times in a year to do surgery at IHK.

Its problem now, he says, is that it lacks equipment. “He has donated equipment which is very old. For example the X-rays, you can’t get all the views, the physical structure is good but the equipment is very archaic.”

Later on Babumba met Dr Ben Mbonye, an orthopeadic surgeon and a former permanent secretary for the Ministry of Defence. Mbonye, together with a team of Ugandan specialists had a consultancy near the Fairway Hotel. Two years ago, they started construction of their own hospital on plot 14A, Akii Bua Road in Nakasero, Kampala.

Babumba has bought shares in the hospital and he hopes to convince other medical specialists to come and offer services. According to Babumba, there are about 50 well trained medical specialists based in South Africa.

“I’m excited about that, it’s owned by at least 20 doctors, we speak the same language and we will have a quality hospital.”

He said Nakasero Private Hospital will bring quality health care nearer instead of such health care being a preserve of the few who can afford to travel out of the country. “Even the rich, sometimes it is too late or their condition is so poor for them to travel.”

“Patients come from Uganda to see us here for hip replacement, knee replacement, spinal surgery – we can offer that surgery in Uganda if we have facilities,” said Babumba, “It’s easier for the surgeon to go there and operate on 10 patients than the 10 patients buying tickets, getting attendants to come.”

Uganda has some good doctors, he says, but they don’t have facilities, that even some of the newer medicine cannot be practiced because of lack of proper equipment. The backwardness of medical facilities always shocks and humbles him. “When someone has a broken leg, we can’t reuse plates and screws to fix the fracture, but in Uganda, the same plates and screws will be washed and used on another patient. I have seen mops (used in theatre) washed of blood and re-sterilised for another patient.”

Ugandans can improvise, he said, but if you told someone in the know that such things still happen in hospitals, they would be utterly shocked. When Nakasero Private Hospital opens its doors, it won’t be only to the rich. He believes Ugandans have the money to spend on quality health care. “If they can afford to take their children to private schools, look at the residential areas, there are mansions coming up all over Uganda, there are designer shops, there are top class restaurants. If they can afford these, they should afford the quality heath care at this 80-bed hospital. It is time to offer them quality health care and get them to learn to pay for it,” he said.

The hospital will have gyneacologists, orthopedic surgeons, physicians, general surgeons, ENT surgeons, psychiatrists and later on, a cardiothoracic surgeon and neurosurgeon.

The specialists have plans to train junior doctors. “We have discussed that and we would like to give an opportunity to the doctors in Mulago, especially the newly qualified doctors to expose them.”

The doctors also hope to give back through charity and will periodically offer free surgery to the poor. As for patriotism, Babumba understands why there are many Ugandans abroad who shun their homeland and would never invest here. “These are developed countries, there is comfort, good schools, good health care, you don’t want to sacrifice that. “You need a lot of patriotism in yourself to pack your bags and leave your practice, say in Cape Town and go back to Uganda,” said Babumba.

Living abroad has its hardships. Living under the label of ‘foreigner’ is not comfortable. In the case of South Africa, the recent xenophobic attacks were a rude awakening to all the immigrants. “Whether you are a citizen of that country, there are people who still consider you a foreigner, home is still home,” Babumba said.

Daily Monitor