For months, the hospital had been cut off from the rest of the world.
As the war raged on the hospital was ransacked several times by the remnants of a defeated army.
Against those odds, one woman worked night and day to treat the wounded and dying.
For months on end, she treated anyone who came through the doors.
While other doctors in her graduating class set up practices in small quiet towns, and in hospitals back in Canada, she worked on the front lines during a chaotic and violent time in Africa.
She never closed her doors.
The commander of an approaching army approached, even told her that her hospital was the first one he had seen in a month, after 600 kilometres of travel, to still be operating.
This was just the beginning of a decade of insecurity and turbulence for Lucille Teasdale, the doctor who never gave up and never surrendered.
I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!
Lucille Teasdale-Corti was born in the east end of Montreal on Jan. 30, 1929, to a working-class family.
In 1941 at age 12 she entered a Catholic high school with a goal of becoming a teacher one day.
That path changed when she heard nuns talking about the work they did as missionaries in China.
At that moment, she embarked on a new destination.
She was going to become a doctor.
Now, keep in mind, it was the 1940s and while women had been present in the medical field since the early-1900s, it was still rare for a woman to become a doctor.
That didn’t matter to Lucille,
As a teenager, she began to study medical textbooks and pushed herself to excel in school. In 1950, she was awarded a scholarship and entered the University of Montreal’s Faculty of Medicine.
Her class had 110 people in it, only 10 were women.
By the end of the first year, that number dropped to 8.
Lucille graduated with honours five years later and began to intern at a hospital in Montreal.
While interning, she met an Italian doctor named Piero Corti, who was doing a residency at the hospital.
The two immediately felt a connection with each other, but according to Piero, he had his work cut out for him because she only had eyes for her career.
“I must say, I didn’t see much of her then, she was too busy. Apart from being very hardworking, I find her extremely good looking.”
She worked and was so focused because Lucille’s dream was to be a surgeon, but her male colleagues scoffed at the idea, except for Piero.
Meanwhile, the earliest mention of Lucille I found in newspapers is from July 20, 1957, when the Montreal Star published a picture of her with Serge Guilbauilt, a 12-year-old boy who lost his legs in a railroad accident.
Lucille was working as a camp physician for the summer at the Lake Pierre Quebec Crippled Children Camp when the photo was taken.
As she worked it seemed that others were against her, her colleagues threatened Piero and told him no one would trust a woman who does surgery and if he became involved with her, he would be jobless. While he didn’t elaborate on the threat in the interview, the context was that if he supported a woman becoming a surgeon, he wouldn’t be hired anywhere in the city.
He didn’t care, and neither did Lucille.
The law at the time stipulated that to become a surgeon, part of her training had to be outside of Canada.
Looking to complete her final year of residency abroad, she applied to several hospitals in the United States. They all turned her down despite her high grades and excellent record as an intern.
She said later that she was turned down because she was a woman.
In 1960, she was able to travel to France to carry out the final internship year in Marseille at the Hopital de la Conception.
While in France, Lucille sent Piero a postcard asking him to come visit.
He was working in Northern Uganda as part of a UN mission and was preparing the first air cargo of equipment to be airlifted.
At the time, the country was known as the Protectorate of Uganda, and had been a British territory since 1894 when the Imperial British East Africa Company transferred administration rights of the territory to them.
By the end of the 1950s, the country was moving towards independence.
Instead of going to France to meet Lucille, Piero asked her to join him for a couple of months as he started his surgical facility near Gulu.
He offered to pay for her air travel, as well as cigarettes and toothpaste.
According to Lucille, the offer was made over a dish of bouillabaisse and a glass of Bordeaux which she accepted. She arrived on an Italian Air Force plane to work as a doctor in Uganda.
But first she had to obtain a licence, which required a two-month internship in the country.
She was assigned to St. Mary’s Hospital Lacor, a non-profit hospital established in 1959 about five kilometres west of Gulu.
This also happened to be Piero’s hospital.
At the time, the hospital had a 40-bed maternity ward, and an outpatient department, but the operating room was still under construction.
In the meantime, Lucille worked at the hospital and then extended her stay a few extra weeks when Piero briefly returned to Italy to care for his ailing father.
Upon his return she flew back to France to finish her studies.
But that wouldn’t last long.
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Soon after Lucille’s return to France, Piero followed her. He begged her to be by his side and professed his love for her.
She felt the same for him, and agreed to go back to Uganda where they were married in a tiny chapel outside the hospital on Dec. 5, 1961.
From that moment on, the couple ran the hospital and provided critical care for thousands of people over the years.
Their two guiding principles were to offer the best possible care to the greatest number of people at the lowest possible cost, and to train those who could eventually replace them.
On Oct. 9, 1962, Uganda gained independence from the Britain. Just over a month later on Nov. 17, the couple’s only child, a daughter named Dominque, was born.
Locals called the girl Atim, which means born far from home, and Lucille was called min Atim, which means mother of Atim.
More often than not, she was called Dr. Lucille, and the locals respected her for her tireless work ethic and boundless energy. It was not unusual for her to see 300 patients a day, while performing back-to-back surgeries throughout the afternoons.
Asked why she did this, she said,
“The medical profession is a way of life, a hobby, a duty for me. I was once asked why I was making such a big fuss in Uganda. I am making a bit fuss because the health of Ugandans is as important as the health of Canadians. If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”
She did all this with inadequate and uncertain water or electricity and little prescription drugs, and no phones.
In 1967 alone, Lucille performed 554 major operations in the hospital, almost two a day.
For each operation, she charged $15, and that was if the family could even afford it. Often, she performed the operation for free.
“There is a tremendous shortage of doctors. In Canada, there is one doctor for 950 people. In Africa, there is one doctor for 50,000 people.”
Meanwhile, Piero treated 3,500 patients and helped 52,000 out-patients that year with the help of three other doctors.
The couple also set up a children’s hospital for patients suffering from leprosy where they could receive schooling and consistent care.
“In a boarding school, we could make sure they get treatment.”
For the first few years of the 1960s, the couple operated their hospital in relative peace.
Uganda was then governed by Prime Minister Milton Obote and things were relatively stable in the country.
That is until a gold smuggling plot turned things upside down.
In 1965, Obote was implicated in a gold smuggling plot with Idi Amin, the deputy commander of the Ugandan armed forces.
When Parliament demanded an investigation, Obote suspended the constitution, declared himself president and gave himself unlimited power under a state of emergency.
He had several members of his cabinet arrested and charged.
He then attacked the palace of the King of Buganda. It was the residence of King Mutesa, the ceremonial president, and after the attack he fled the country.
One year later, Obote passed a new constitution that abolished the federal structure of the country.
While all of this happened far from the hospital, it marked the starting point of a very troubling time in Uganda, that over the next two decades found its way to the hospital.
In 1971, Obote was on his way to Singapore when Idi Amin staged a coup, overthrew the government and became president.
Now that name might sound familiar to you, over his many years of brutal rule he gained many nicknames and was often referred to as the “Butcher of Africa” and he even gave himself the title of Last King of Scotland.
Upon assuming power, Idi Amin began mass executions upon the Acholi and Lango, Christian tribes that had been loyal to Obote.
He also began terrorizing the general public through various internal security forces with the purpose of eliminating opposition.
In 1972 he expelled between 50,000 and 70,000 of Uganda’s Asian population and gave their properties and businesses to his supporters, causing the economy and infrastructure to collapse.
In 1977 he broke diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom and declared he had defeated the British and called himself the Conqueror of the British Empire.
Under Amin’s tyrannical rule many expatriates left the country but not Lucille and Piero who chose to remain and run their hospital.
The couple organized a support group in Italy that provided the hospital with used clothes, prescription drugs and equipment.
But they weren’t going to put their only daughter at risk so Dominque was sent away to ensure her safety and so she could be better educated as Uganda’s educational system collapsed.
She attended schools in Italy and Kenya and returned to Uganda three times a year for holidays.
For Lucille, sending her daughter away was extremely difficult and she would call it the biggest sacrifice she ever made.
But Lucille and Piero had tougher times ahead.[PAUSE]
In 1979, Idi Amin was overthrown during the Uganda-Tanzania War.
The disbanded army ransacked the hospital several times as they fled from the advancing Tanzanian army.
For months, the hospital was cut off from the world during the conflict, and Lucille was constantly operating on wounded civilians. War couldn’t stay away for long, and it infiltrated the walls of the hospital.
While Lucille operated on a wounded soldier, another soldier hit Piero and he suffered a punctured eardrum.
In another incident, Piero narrowly missed being shot by machine gun fire when marauders fired at the hospital.
By 1980, Milton Obote regained power in Uganda. But this didn’t mean peace would come from his return, instead it led to what was called the Ugandan Bush War.
Lasting until 1986, it was fought between the Uganda National Liberation Army and a number of rebel groups.
The war left upwards of 500,000 people dead.
It also kept Lucille’s hospital very busy.
Despite the turmoil around them, the couple’s hard work allowed them to upgrade the hospital to 482 beds, open three health centres in nearby villages, establish a health worker training program, train laboratory technicians, and open a nursing school.
Then, a minor operation changed Lucille’s life forever.[PAUSE]
In the early 1980s, while operating on a patient, Lucille cut her finger.
She thought nothing of it after treating it, but little did she know that the patient was infected with a mysterious illness not yet widely identified.
The disease is believed to have originated in primates in west-central Africa and transferred to humans in the early 20th century. The first well-documented case in a human has been traced back to 1959 in the Congo and may have been present in the United States as early as 1966.
The first news story of the disease appearing in the New York was published e on May 18, 1981. The first clinically reported case in the United States appeared on June 5 of that same year. The disease was caused by a virus, and it would go on to become a global pandemic that killed a generation because of the stigma it carried.
The virus is HIV, and the illness is AIDS.
Lucille said of contracting the disease,
“We didn’t know the disease well, but I washed my hands right away and disinfected them, but we didn’t even know what the proper disinfectants were to deal with this disease.”
By 1982, the disease started to show up more frequently at the hospital and Lucille started to experience the first symptoms.
In 1985, she traveled to Italy where testing was available, she tested positive for HIV. Overall, Lucille accepted that she had the virus and left it at that.
She compared being infected to journalists who die covering stories or, or men who work in mines getting lung disease. For her it was a risk of doing her job.
“I caught this disease instead of another one. Why should I be upset about it?”
She was given two years left to live.[TRANSITION]
As HIV ravaged her body and weakened her Lucille continued to help where she could.
The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs provided significant aid for the hospital, including specialists and equipment so Lucille was able to train new doctors when the Uganda Ministry of Health recognized the hospital as an internship training centre.
But things in Uganda were still highly unstable, especially after the ousting Milton Obote was overthrown once again in 1986.
That led to rebels looting the hospital, sometimes several times a week. During each incident staff and patients were held at gunpoint as the rebels searched for money and drugs.
The unstoppable Lucille Teasdale kept working.
Even though the next decade would see her condition worsen.
In 1991, Lucille was awarded the Order of Canada, and received the National Order of Quebec in 1995.
By early 1996, she weighed less than 100 pounds but was still working four to six hours a day in the Ugandan outpatient clinic.
Often, she was too weak to get out of bed and needed an IV to rehydrate but as soon as she was able, she got to work.
Part of her tireless efforts were to remove the stigma related to HIV and AIDS and show.
“that you can be well enough to live a happy life and a full life.”
But Piero and Lucille were aware that the end was near, and they planned to leave behind a lasting legacy.
They trained surgeons, and their daughter Dominique, now a doctor herself, began to work at the hospital alongside her parents.
“My husband has had two heart attacks and I have my disease. We know we are not going to be around for many more years. We have practically Africanized the hospital and they are well prepared to take over.”
Lucille died in Italy on Aug. 1, 1996.
Her funeral service was held in a cathedral near to the hospital and was attended by hundreds of people. Some of the staff travelled up to 40 kilometres on foot, with the risk of ambushes and land mines, to attend the funeral.
The military, to protect those in the church, put an armed tank outside the doors so the service would not be interrupted.
Eight years later, Piero followed when he died of pancreatic cancer. He is buried next to Lucille.
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Canada Post issued a stamp in her honour in 2000 and in 2001, she was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.
In 2016, a Heritage Minute was created to remember her dedication and sacrifice.
If I were to list the awards Lucille received in her life, it would take up several minutes of his episode, so I will focus on just a few.
She was awarded the Sasakawa Health Prize by the World Health Organization, the FNG Starr Award from the Canadian Medical Association, the Excellence Award from the International Centre for the African Cause-United Nations, the Gold Medal for Civil Merit from Italy and she was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.
So, that is the story of Lucille Teasdale-Corti, but you might be wondering about the hospital and the legacy Lucille and Piero built.[TRANSITION]
Prior to their deaths, Lucille and Piero established the Lucille Teasdale and Piero Corti Foundations in Milan and Montreal. These foundations ensure the future of the hospital.
Most recently the hospital was once again thrown into the frontlines during the 2000 Ebola epidemic that claimed the life of Dr. Matthew Lukwiya, who led Uganda’s two-month battle against the deadly virus.
Today, St. Mary’s-Lacor Hospital continues to be one of the top hospitals in Africa and provides first-class, affordable medical care to thousands of people.
It now has over 500 Ugandan employees, with 482 beds, treating over 300,000 patients a year, half of whom are children under the age of six.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, Canadian Museum of Human Rights, Wikipedia, Montreal Star, Regina Leader-Post, Sault Star, Montreal Gazette, North Bay Nugget