“Yes, I knew they were supposed to die but I made sure they would die in comfort.”
Dr Ddungu affirms in a soft voice but the conviction with which he says it, makes it loud enough for me to notice even as we drive through the streets of Kampala from Mulago Hospital.
- Henry Ddungu, before becoming Dr Ddungu, while pursuing his first degree in Medicine and Surgery at Makerere University during clinical rounds met many distressed cancer patients – dying in pain.
- As a young boy, he helplessly watched his own father being eaten up by cancer. He could do nothing to lessen his father’s pain till his death.
Yet Ddungu’s intention as he started studying medicine at Makerere University was to be a general physician but in his fourth year when a doctor from Hospice talked of palliative care and offered him an introductory course, his interest was stirred. His sub specialty would be blood cancers like leukemia, lymphomas, bone marrow and failure syndrome among others.
“Understanding all aspects of blood would help me understand cancers better,” he said.
- To ensure that his plan went through, Dr Ddungu joined Hospice Africa Uganda for further training in palliative care where at the end he would offer end of life care to patients in their homes.
- Two years later, he decided to do a masters degree specializing in internal medicine at Makerere University and after 3 years his passion for palliative care drove him back to Hospice.
- While working at Mulago hospital, he got an opportunity to study hematology at McMaster University in Canada.
He came back and helped push for the training of two clinicians at the same university as he advocated for hematology oncology for students studying medicine—a rare speciality in Uganda. In fact Dr Ddungu says there are only four hematology oncologists working in the government sector. Equipped with all the knowledge there is to know about blood cancers, he is now a consultant with the Uganda Cancer Institute at Mulago.
“The fact is that blood cancer is a killer but I give my patients hope of death with minimal suffering,” he explains.
He has fond memories of some of his patients. A case in point is a 13-year old girl with leukemia who told him to allow her go back to the village and die. “It was painful to hear her say that, but I gave her medicine and a year later she came back to thank me, I have never been happier,” he says. But his job comes with challenges.
For instance one has to always know the exact extent of the disease or exact cells. “Working blindly is not the best. I know what to do but I can’t do it,”he notes.
Dr Ddungu says that the Uganda Cancer Institute has most of the needed medicine to treat cancer but the novel targeted treatment is too expensive for even the more developed countries. The sadness he always lives with is knowing that his patients will sooner than later die because of lack of better medicine.
“Every doctor would love to catch a patient’s disease in its earliest stages but unfortunately patients present late. It’s often not their fault, they are not aware of little lumps.”
This, he notes requires creating more awareness, the reason he has been hosted on several radio talk shows to talk about the disease.
Dr Ddungu is however perturbed by the fact that for a long time, cancer has not been given precedence especially in terms of supportive care. “The need for blood is so high in this country but cancer patients are not prioritized for blood transfusion. More doctors, at least specialists are needed. Some doctors don’t have lunch and work nonstop on patients who sit from morning till late and even some go home without treatment,” he reveals. But even with these challenges, Dr Ddungu appreciates government’s effort to construct a new cancer building, making available free cancer medicines to patients and setting up diagnostic laboratory services.
Away from work, the 40-year-old doctor loves music. He plays a trumpet and is aspiring to master a saxophone, an instrument lying in wait in his house. Music he says gives his patients hope and spiritual healing.
“When a patient tells me, doctor I slept peacefully, that makes my heart smile,” he says with a grin.
PS: This article appeared on pg.32 of the Health Digest, an initiative by the Health Journalists Network in Uganda – HEJNU. Health Digest