This story first appeared in Comboni Missions magazine Spring 2019.
Honoring a Renowned Surgeon’s Tireless Service
By: Kathleen M. Carroll
Dr. Andrew Vuni was head surgeon at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Maracha, Uganda. The first bishop of Arua asked him to help the German doctors there in 1986. The institution is famous for its Catholic values and its high-caliber training program, but, during Dr. Vuni’s tenure, it stood apart for one central reason: It was always open.
Comboni Father Ruffino Ezama recalls working in the area. “Someone who was injured or a mother in labor would come to us for help, because we had a car. We learned not to waste time driving to one of the other health centers, because you might arrive there only to find the doors locked and the lights off. At Maracha, we knew there would always be someone to help us. The lights were always on.”
My interview with Dr. Vuni was a challenge. He was charming and evidently brilliant, but I could not seem to make my questions understood. “What do you need for the hospital?” I asked repeatedly, and repeatedly he’d he answer, “Money.” I asked a few more ways, “What would you do with money? Would you add a wing, purchase some equipment, invest in maintenance?” Finally we understood each other. He leveled a steady gaze and said, “I would probably pay the staff.”
As he explained, Maracha attracted top talent because of its excellent reputation, but it was hard to keep staff when they might have to go months between paychecks. The rate of attrition was high and staff turnover proved a challenge.
“I would like this hospital to become the standard in the area,” Dr. Vuni said. “But with the staff constantly changing, it is hard.”
I was intrigued. How had Maracha developed the reputation for always being open when even the government hospitals could not always do so? If staff was always short, how could they keep the doors open?
Dr. Vuni explained, “I’ve been here 32 years.” I could see that that kind of stability in management would be an asset, but was that enough to offset always being short-staffed? Once again I found myself asking the same question in different ways. The more my questions varied, the more his did not: “I have been here 32 years.”
Leaving the cause as lost, I tried a new line of inquiry. “When you get a chance to get away from the hospital, where do you go? What do you like to do?”
Once again he turned tired eyes to me and, with great patience, repeated: “I have been here 32 years.”
There, sitting outside his residence on the hospital grounds, the sunset having long since given way to total darkness, the light went on for me. This 79-year-old, who already worked a job that would exhaust most, who struggled to keep the doors open when he could not even afford to pay the doctors and nurses who trained there, had never left. Had never taken a vacation. Had never had a day off.
He had been there 32 years.
By the time he died on November 18, it was 33. I know that when he reached his destination, he found the light on and the doors open.