Meet the head nurse of the country's sole cancer center

Allen Naamala Mayanja is known to pitch in whenever she is needed
Allen Naamala Mayanja
Allen Naamala Mayanja is the head nurse at the Uganda Cancer Institute. Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

KAMPALA, UGANDA -- When Allen Naamala Mayanja was lured away from Mulago Hospital, Uganda’s largest, in 2009 to become the head nurse at the Uganda Cancer Institute, the staff awaiting her consisted of 15 professional nurses and two nursing aides.

That was the year the Uganda government stepped up funding for the UCI. Today she proudly oversees a staff of 70.

It’s an impressive increase. But then again, so is the rise in patients seeking cancer care. The UCI is the sole dedicated cancer center in a country of 36 million people. Since Sister Allen — the respectful title accorded nurses in Uganda — took over, the number of new patients seen at the UCI has doubled, to 27,000 a year. When return visits are counted, the institute sees 60,000 patients a year. 

“My nurses are so dedicated,” said Sister Allen, a dynamo who is known to set aside her considerable administrative duties and pitch in whenever needed.

Sister Allen works hard to keep her hard-working team motivated. A passionate believer in education — she started out as a midwife and now holds a master’s degree — she is always looking for opportunities for her staff to advance in their careers, going from the yellow belts worn by junior nurses to red to her own black belt.

Fred Hutch’s Program in Global Oncology, which has a research and training partnership with the UCI, helps organize on-site symposiums on research skills for nurses. Sister Allen’s dream is to give her team the opportunity to earn degrees in oncology nursing, not now offered in Uganda.

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