You think your life is bad until you see true poverty
Published 04/05/2016 | 02:30
Rose is 29 years of age and has advanced cervical cancer. From a small village outside Mbarara in Western Uganda, she was diagnosed last September after complaining of abdominal pain and heavy bleeding.
If she was living in Ireland - or indeed any developed country in the West - she would have started on treatment straight away. It wouldn't have mattered if she had money or not. And her chances of survival - or at least an extension to life - would have been high.
But Rose lives in Uganda, where the health system is underdeveloped and chaotic. And it's not free. If you can't pay for treatment, the likelihood is you suffer and eventually die. Even if you have money for treatment, the services are appalling. The rich can afford to travel to neighbouring countries to get well.
She was funded through the charity Hospice Africa Uganda to go to Mulago Hospital (Uganda's national referral hospital) in Kampala for radiotherapy. She arrived in Mulago in mid-March, full of hope, to start her treatment. She stayed in a cramped, overcrowded hostel on the hospital grounds. Her aunt Sarah closed down her small business to be with her. But she never got to start treatment because Uganda's only radiotherapy machine, donated second-hand by the Chinese government in 2005, has broken down beyond repair.
She is one of 17,000 patients in Uganda who are relying on radiotherapy to stabilise symptoms and extend life. As so many patients present with advanced cancer, cure is not always an option. These patients and their families have been left scared and devastated at the news that the radiotherapy machine is out of commission.
The issue has dominated the news all week and has received a lot of international media attention also.
The government has said that it has purchased a new radiotherapy machine and it should be up and running in six months, once a special bunker is built to house the radioactive equipment. But this has been greeted with scepticism. The department of health has known about the need to replace the old machine for the past five years and there is huge doubt that things will now move quickly. In the meantime, the government has promised to pay for 400 patients to go to the Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi. These will be the most serious cases. The remaining 16,600 patients will have to try to get palliative care and morphine to relieve pain.
I met Rose in the Hospice Africa Uganda clinic in Kampala, where I am currently volunteering. She was bewildered and extremely upset. What happens now, she wanted to know? Will she die? What about her family? Why is the treatment not available? Is there any value on human life in her country?
Hospice Africa Uganda provides end of life and palliative care to around 2,000 patients across its three centres in Uganda every month. The breakdown of the radiotherapy machine is likely to lead to an increase in demand for our services. Already this week, we have had many inquiries from scared and upset patients who will not get the radiotherapy treatment they urgently need.
Here is the future for Rose. Unless she is one of 400 patients the Uganda government airlifts to Nairobi, she will go home to Mbarara. She will be under the care of the dedicated Hospice Africa Uganda team, who will ensure she is comfortable and pain-free.
At 29 years of age, Rose is finding it hard to accept that her life may be cut short.
Living in Uganda for the last three months, I am still finding it difficult to come to terms with the life people face here, and the vulgar disparities that exist.
The vast majority of people in Uganda are just subsisting. The rhythm of every day is the same. It's a constant struggle.
The priorities are housing, food, and school fees for children. Like health, education is not free here either. When somebody gets ill, this completely upsets this life rhythm and there is a desperate scramble to try and get funds. Often, ill people forego health treatment rather than risk money for housing, food and education.
We in the West have first-world fixations with creature comforts. We do more than just exist. We get to live also. For most of us, our lives are not a vicious circle of survival. We can complain that at times money is tight, we can't take that second holiday or upgrade the car. But even those unemployed get support from the State.
It is easy for us to forget about the struggles of life and death that so many in other countries have to deal with every day.
Of course, I am following the farcical efforts back at home to form a government. I have read reports about the Independent TDs' attempts to hold the nation to ransom with a €13bn list of demands. New motorways, railway lines, re-opening of old mental institutions, tax incentives and local vanity projects.
Yes, they matter, but not in a life or death kind of way.
Nothing at all on any of those lists about increasing foreign aid to help people in other parts of the world in dire need.
Nothing to provide any hope for people like Rose, for whom life is so bleak.