Italian Heroes in Uganda

“Helping people on the other side of the Earth is not outlandish. The world is getting smaller and smaller,” says Dr. Dominique Corti.

Corti is the daughter of a Montreal woman who was one of Quebec’s first female surgeons – Dr. Lucille Teasdale. Meanwhile, her father was Dr. Piero Corti, an Italian pediatrician from north of Milan. Perhaps you never heard their names before, but people in Uganda, Africa, know who Drs. Corti and Teasdale are. The three family members are considered heroes there for developing and managing one of the only hospitals in the area.

The St. Mary’s Lacor Hospital in Gulu exists today, and treats about 250,000 patients every year, thanks to the Corti family.

It started in 1959, when Italian missionaries were in Uganda. “They were looking for a doctor to work at a new hospital,” Corti says. “My father had worked in China for three years, and then went to India, but he could not tolerate the heat.” So Dr. Piero Corti, who was in his mid-30s at the time and specialized in pediatrics, radiology, and neuropsychiatry, decided to give Uganda a try. “Uganda is just beautiful. It’s never too hot and never too cold, and it’s not dangerous if you are white in Uganda,” says Corti.

Her father worked with Combonian missionaries in Africa, and Corti says he absolutely loved their vision. “The vision was that Africa was to be saved by Africans,” Corti explains. But before this could be accomplished, the hospital needed doctors. Corti decided to persuade a Montreal surgeon he had once met to join him in Africa.

“My mom was in France at the time, and she had sent my dad a postcard. This was the 1960s and people were horrified at the idea of a female surgeon,” Corti says. “So my father wooed her to come to Uganda for a couple of months.

Lucille Teasdale made the trip to northern Uganda, and a couple of months turned into 30 years. The two doctors fell in love, got married, and shared a common dream: “to offer health care to the greatest number of people who needed it most – at the least cost”. The Italian and Canadian doctors made the hospital their home. Dominique Corti was born there, and she grew up running through the halls of the Lacor Hospital in Gulu.

“I knew I was different in Uganda, because I would read and play, while other children would spend their days fetching water,” Corti recalls.

At first, Corti’s parents were the only two doctors working at the hospital. “My mom performed all the surgeries. Money to run the hospital came from fees, and from my parents going around asking friends to help.”

Piero Corti contacted doctors he knew in Italy to join him in Africa, and by the early 1980s, the vision for the hospital was becoming a reality. “In 1983, the hospital was approved as a training hospital for Ugandan doctors,” Corti says, adding that this is one of the keys to giving the war-torn, poor nation a sustainable health care system. “We are giving people the chance to work in their country. In Uganda, there is one doctor for every 10,000 people. How can we have a health care system if the doctors run away?”

So Corti’s parents were committed to training new doctors until their deaths.

Her mother died in 1996 of AIDS. Teasdale had contracted the disease 10 years earlier while performing surgery. Corti says she kept working in the operating room until her last days. “No one knew much about AIDS at the time, and she wanted to keep on operating. A doctor in London told her that if she stopped operating, it would be a certain death for her patients. So she must continue,” Corti says. Even when her mother’s condition worsened, Teasdale operated on war casualties for hours a day.

Meanwhile, her father died in 2003, at the age of 76, of pancreatic cancer. Today, the Lacor Hospital has a staff of 600 people – all Ugandans. There are about 500 beds – a large leap from when Corti’s parents were the only two doctors there.

And Corti’s mission now is to keep her parent’s dream alive. She chairs the two foundations that were started by her parents to help fund the non-profit hospital. This is why she spends most of her time between Italy, Canada and Uganda. She runs the Teasdale-Corti Foundation, which has an office in Milan and one in Montreal (her parents’ native cities).

“We have to fight the idea that Medicare is expensive. In Africa, we can do a lot with a little,” Corti says. “We can treat a patient with $15. Sixty per cent of the hospital’s mortality is children aged 0 to 4. We can solve these problems. Their diseases are easily curable.”

Almost half the patients who come to the hospital are children, suffering from what Corti calls “poverty diseases”, such as malaria and diarrhea. The private hospital runs on an annual operating budget of $4.5 million. Small fees help cover the cost.

“Pregnant women and children under 6 are treated for free. All other patients pay a lump fee that is never more than 20 per cent of the total cost of their treatment.” The Ugandan government also funds the hospital, and Corti says 20 per cent comes from individual donations.

When she is not meeting with donors, Corti makes it a point to visit high schools to speak with students. “I want our children to know that living in Canada is an amazing privilege. They wake up in the morning, they flick a switch, and they have light! They turn on a tap, and they have water – all the water they can possibly want, and it’s safe drinking water,” Corti says. “In Uganda, children have to walk an hour to find water, and then walk back home for another hour with a pail of water on their heads.”

Corti says if Canadians realize how lucky they are, they will want to start helping out.

“We live far beyond our means, and that needs to change,” Corti says. “I’m not talking about doing desperate things. I am talking about reducing the waste. There is so much food we buy that we know we won’t eat. In homes, we have rooms full of games that the kids don’t even touch.”

Corti says the key to making change happen is to do a little bit, every single day.

“Our hospital made a difference in Uganda because it stayed there for 30 years. We have to help out, not just once a year during the holidays, but on a regular basis. Put aside a dollar a week – or whatever you can – every week, each month, all year long. Keep on doing it. We are on a collision course, and sooner or later, someone will have to pay the bills. So by helping them, you are also helping yourself and your children.”

written by Sabrina Marandola