In the southwestern region of Uganda, in the district of Kasese – a region historically inflicted by civil war, disease and lack of access to quality health care – lies 2 acres of land once owned by Elizabeth Kalimunda. It is on this plot that Dorothy Ndishabandi, a research technician in the MGH Department of Pathology, is building the Elizabeth Memorial Health Center – named in honor of her late grandmother – to bring care to nearby communities.

Ndishabandi was born in Kilembe in the Kasese district. Her family moved to the U.S. in 2003 when she was 12 years old. “I am fortunate to have a supportive family that has helped me thrive and become the person I am today,” she says. “Some of the people I grew up with were not as fortunate. They suffered epidemic outbreaks, diseases and some are now dead. Among those people was my grandmother.”

Like many others in Uganda, Kalimunda’s condition had been poorly diagnosed, and she didn’t receive proper care. By the time the cervical cancer was discovered, it was too late. “Her death stayed with me for quite a while,” says Ndishabandi. “It was an injustice that she didn’t receive proper care and treatment when she needed it most.”

While still in high school, Ndishabandi, now 26 years old, approached her parents with the idea of creating a health facility offering affordable and exceptional patient-centered care. She wanted to build it in the Kasese district – on her grandmother’s land. “What better way to honor my grandmother than to give back to the community she lived in and loved,” says Ndishabandi.

She worked three jobs to support herself through college and to save money to build the health center and in 2011, construction began. It was funded entirely by Ndishabandi. Since then, she graduated from high school and college, moved from Mississippi to Boston, continued to work full-time – she has been at the MGH for five years – and published her own cookbook, all profits benefiting the health center.

And, she’s continued to construct the Elizabeth Memorial Health Center – brick-by-brick, wall-by-wall.

Clinical Outreach

Lack of proper treatment facilities, limited knowledge and awareness of diseases and inability to access health centers are among the major issues impacting health care in the region. Only about 50 percent of Ugandans live within a 5 km walk to a health facility, and more than 80 percent of people in Kasese live in rural areas where diseases – such as pre-natal conditions, malaria, measles, tetanus, tuberculosis, cervical cancer and hepatitis B – are most prevalent.

“The Elizabeth Memorial Health Center will benefit the people in the community and surrounding villages who travel long distances to the city for immediate medical attention,” says Ndishabandi. “Its main focus will be on maternal and child health, to create a system that is functional not only as the child grows up, but before they are born. By monitoring the health of expecting mothers and of children under the age of 15, we can reduce the spread and severity of infectious diseases.”

To introduce the clinic to the community, Ndishabandi hosted an onsite outreach event in April. With the help of many volunteers and community doctors and nurses, the group provided numerous services, including cervical cancer screenings, hepatitis B screenings, blood pressure and blood glucose checks, an eye clinic and an ear, nose and throat clinic. They also documented vital signs, assessed minor issues and addressed patient concerns. Through word of mouth alone, 425 people showed up for screenings.

“I wanted to make my intention to serve known to the community and the Ministry of Health,” says Ndishabandi. “This helped us better understand the health issues affecting the community, so we can align the center’s goals to reflect the community’s health needs. The event could not have been possible without the help of the volunteers in Uganda and the support from friends and co-workers here in the United States. The clinic is not yet operational so the need for medical attention in the area stays unsolved.”

Health goals

While the first clinical outreach was a success, there is still electrical, plumbing and further interior work that needs to be completed before the health center is fully open and operational.

Ndishabandi hopes in the future to collaborate with health care institutions, educational facilities and clinicians to foster a teaching environment promoting awareness and education to further improve health outcomes. “If we create health programs for individuals and the community to participate in, we are empowering them to prevent and manage disease throughout their lives,” she says.

“I hope now to finish the rest of construction before I go back to Uganda again. As each room is completed, it will start being used for care. There may not be any fancy ‘grand opening,’ but I just want to start helping the community, and I couldn’t be more excited about it.”

More MGH in Uganda

Read about the many other Mass General initiatives taking place in Uganda.

This article was originally published in the 08/18/17 Hotline issue.