'The people make us shine': Fred Hutch-UCI building poised to open, but staff is the heart

As the new Fred Hutch-UCI cancer center is poised to open in Uganda, the focus is on those within its walls
Sister Allen Naamala Mayanja
Sister Allen Naamala Mayanja, the UCI's head nurse, at a town hall meeting the day before the grand opening of the new UCI-Fred Hutch Cancer Centre. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Editor's note: Fred Hutch News Service writer Mary Engel and photographer Robert Hood were in Uganda for the May 21 grand opening of the UCI-Fred Hutch Cancer Centre. To read more of Mary and Robert's stories from Uganda, please click here.

KAMPALA, UGANDA – On the day before the opening of the first comprehensive cancer center jointly constructed by U.S. and African institutions in sub-Saharan Africa, leaders of both the Uganda Cancer Institute and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center were clear about one thing:

It’s not just about a building.

Of course, everyone is thrilled about the three-story, 25,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility. But the celebration planned for Thursday is really about the decade-long alliance between the UCI and Fred Hutch that made the building – and more importantly, the work that the partners have already done and will continue to do – possible.

“The collaboration is not just the building, it’s the people,” said Fred Hutch Global Oncology Director Dr. Corey Casper.

As a big white party tent rose up Wednesday on the brick-paved parking lot outside the new UCI-Fred Hutch Cancer Research Centre, Casper and UCI director Dr. Jackson Orem, co-directors of the alliance, convened a town hall-style meeting of about 50 physician-researchers, nurses, study leaders, lab techs, pharmacists and Ugandans who have undergone alliance training in recent years.

“This building is beautiful, but it’s the people who make us shine,” Casper told them. “When I look around this room, I’m so proud of you.”

See a time-lapse video of the tent going up in preparation for the grand opening of the UCI-Fred Hutch Cancer Centre in Kampala, Uganda. Video by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

From small collaboration to first-of-its kind center

A decade ago, the UCI and Fred Hutch began a small research collaboration that has grown to include training, clinical care, community outreach and now a first-of-its-kind cancer center that will accommodate 20,000 outpatient visits a year. (Just up the hill, the Ugandan government has built a new inpatient hospital, which began admitting pediatric patients about two months ago. Patients will move from the old to the new facilities in phases.)

Cancer causes more deaths in low- and middle-income countries than malaria, tuberculosis and HIV combined. Yet until recent years, few governments, organizations or scientists were aware of this, much less working on research, prevention or treatment.

“This is the first group who came to work specifically with the Uganda Cancer institute,” said Orem.

At the time the partnership formed, Orem was the only oncologist working in a country of more than 35 million people. He worked in a patchwork of crumbling buildings where patients far outnumbered beds.

Dr. Corey Casper
Dr. Corey Casper Photo by Robert Hood

The alliance quickly recognized the need for new infrastructure. A new building was part of the plan from the start. So was training the people to work in it.

 Soon the alliance was offering fellowships to young Ugandan doctors to study at Fred Hutch and the University of Washington so that they might return to the UCI to treat patients and do research. A dozen physicians have now been trained, and another 300 Ugandan scientists and 40 Ugandan doctors have undergone shorter trainings in Kampala.

“I’ve seen a lot of North-to South collaborations,” Dr. Larry Corey, Fred Hutch president and director emeritus, told the gathering Wednesday. “I’m not sure any of them has been as successful as this one in the sense that so many people came back. It’s been 100 percent. I don’t think any other program has been able to do that over this length of time.”

Corey has a special reason for being at Thursday’s opening: he helped launch the Fred Hutch partnership with the UCI as a pilot program 11 years ago and was a mentor to Casper.

“We can always do better,” he said, “but we must be doing something right.”

UCI medical director Dr. Jackson Orem (foreground, left) and Dr. Corey Casper (foreground, right) talk with Dr. Larry Corey (center, legs crossed) and others at a town hall the day before the UCI-Fred Hutch Cancer Centre grand opening. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Still work ahead

The work is far from over. For example, Sister Allen Naamala Mayanja, the UCI’s black-belted head nurse as well as an alliance study nurse, wanted to know how the collaboration could help with more training for nurses, allowing them to specialize in cancer care.

Orem agreed, noting that nurses in Uganda (and elsewhere) traditionally worked in the shadow of doctors. Also, nurses in Uganda tend to be generalists, not specialists.

“We want to break that tradition,” he told Sister Allen.

With the new building in place, Orem encouraged the alliance members to think of new goals. And he’s hoping that one of the things the new building will allow is the space to dream bigger dreams. For the first time, all of the alliance’s missions – research, training and clinical care – will be housed in one building, with ample room for conferences, meetings and just a place to make notes.

“If you had an idea in the clinic and want to think about it, come. If you want a secluded place where you can concentrate, come,” he said. “This is a shady ground. Everyone who has been sitting in the sun, come in.”

Robert Hood, senior multimedia editor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, is a longtime photojournalist who grew up in newspapers and most recently worked at NBC News Digital and msnbc.com, directing multimedia operations. Reach him at rbhood@fredhutch.org.

Funding for the Burkitt Lymphoma Project comes from the National Cancer Institute, the Burkitt Lymphoma Fund for Africa, the Martin-Fabert Foundation and individual donors.

Mary Engel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Previously, she covered medicine and health policy for the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. She was also a fellow at the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. Follow her on Twitter @Engel140.

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