In Uganda, a calling to care for cancer patients

Dr. Abrahams Omoding
Dr. Abrahams Omoding at the Uganda Cancer Institute in Kampala, Uganda in 2014. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

The pay is low, the work so hard that many Ugandan parents don’t want their kids to go into medicine. We spend long hours, morning to evening. It’s more of a calling.

Half of my medical school class has left medicine. Ten or 15 of my colleagues went to Eritrea, Libya, Syria, Swaziland, Botswana.  Some went to South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States. And some who stayed have quit medicine. One took an accounting class and now works for the Bank of Uganda.

I worked as an intern at the Uganda Cancer Institute in 2002. Then I worked for Hospice Africa for two to three years. I drove from home to home to care for patients in their homes. My experience with hospice led me to think of oncology.

I did my Master’s degree in the United Kingdom and some training in oncology, and returned to the UCI in 2008. In 2010, I trained [at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center] in Seattle, returning in 2011. Seattle — oh, goodness me, it’s wet all the time. And no one carries an umbrella. You could tell we weren’t from Seattle because we carried umbrellas.

When I returned from Seattle, I started working on setting up UCI mobile cancer community clinics. Only 4 percent of all cancer cases nationwide make it to the Cancer Institute [the country’s only comprehensive cancer center, in Kampala, Uganda]. The majority of our patients come from very far.

It’s easier to take a doctor to see 100 people than to take 100 people to see a doctor. The Mbarara clinic serves the Southwest region [of Uganda] plus Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda. I travel there once a month. On difficult cases, I get phone calls and emails. There’s one doctor in Mbarara who trained with us for six weeks.

The Arua [clinic] is a 10-hour drive. I travel on Monday, see patients on Tuesday and give training on Wednesday to create a medical fraternity. I don’t mind [spending six days a month] on the road because I derive satisfaction from the work.

We are increasing the number of people who have access to cancer care. But most importantly, we will also improve the outcome. The clinics are mobile now, but it’s a template for setting up regional cancer centers. We’re also doing comprehensive awareness creation, screening, and training and educating local healthcare workers to recognize cancer and refer them to a cancer center.

We hope that by doing this [we will] de-congest the UCI [in Kampala]. This would free us to do research, training and handle the most difficult cases — work befitting a center of excellence.

Dr. Abrahams Omoding, director of outreach and an attending physician at the UCI, was a Global Oncology fellow at Fred Hutch from 2010 to 2011 and continues to work with the UCI/Hutchinson Center Cancer Alliance.

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