A palliative care doctor has told of easing the suffering of dying patients in Africa – sometimes armed with nothing more than a paracetamol.
Dr Mhoira Leng’s Aberdeen-based charity Cairdeas is celebrating winning a £50,000 UK Government grant to improve the quality of end-of-life care in one of the world’s most deprived regions.
More than 250,000 South Sudanese refugees have poured into Adjumani District in Uganda, an area that until recently only had one district hospital with no functioning x-ray machine.
Dr Leng – who specialized in palliative care at Aberdeen University in the 1980s – returned earlier this month to the country she’s made her home to continue her lifelong humanitarian work helping the world’s poorest people.
The 56-year-old said: “It breaks my heart when you know there’s something you could do to ease a person’s suffering, and a lack of resources is stopping that.
“A young friend of mine died of Covid in Uganda last year.
“He was phoning me from intensive care and I’m saying, ‘you’re okay, you’re in the right place’, but actually there was a problem with resources, and he didn’t make it.
“He was just 29.
“Those moments are gutting.
“I remember only 10 years ago, walking onto a ward and hearing one of my patients screaming and I wanted to just walk off the ward because I knew I had no analgesia to give them.
“I had to make myself walk in there and do what I could.
“Cairdeas then did a fundraiser and we got oral morphine and since then we’ve never had that problem in Uganda – but this will be happening in many other parts of the world.”
Cairdeas – which is the Gaelic word for “friendship” – will use its £50,000 Small Charities Challenge Fund (SCCF) grant from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to develop palliative care in Obongi district of northern Uganda.
The two-year project will empower local community health workers by giving them the skills to improve the quality of life of people living with chronic and life-limiting illnesses.
Dr Leng said that although palliative care in hospital settings was relatively new in the UK when she began working at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary in 1987, the UK is now a world leader in the field.
And Uganda is now the leading African nation for palliative care.
She added that her own work in the field helped her deal with her own dramatic health scare last year.
Having been rushed home to Scotland in June after suffering serious breathing problems, Dr Leng is on the mend and looking forward to returning to Uganda.
“I think facing your own mortality is something that is very real if you work in palliative care”, she said.
“Seeing first-hand how death is part and parcel of life gives you a strong sense that all our days are numbered.
“It gives you a ‘live for today’ outlook.
“What a privilege I have been able to return to the UK to get the healthcare I needed.
“The results were not conclusive but they’ve ruled out the really nasty things and I’m now on the road to recovery.
“I couldn’t wait to get back to Uganda.”
Minister for Africa, James Duddridge, said: “I am delighted that Cairdeas is using the UK Government’s Small Charities Challenge Fund to be a force for good in the world by helping some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
“We are committed to supporting Uganda’s ongoing development, while providing urgent, life-saving humanitarian support to refugees and those in the greatest need in the country.”