When a young Ugandan shared his dream of starting the first hospital in his district to provide free health care services, a UCLA undergraduate student chose to help make it a reality.
And UCLA supported that choice.
Last spring, David Joseph became the inaugural recipient of the UCLA Global Citizens Fellowship, a grant supported by UCLA Student Affairs that offers undergraduates an opportunity to pursue self-directed public service projects in international communities. Joseph, now a third-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics major, used the $5,000 award to expand his existing efforts in Padar, Uganda, and lay the groundwork for the installation of eight medical emergency boxes to connect residents to local medical experts.
The idea for the boxes was sparked by something Joseph found useful here at UCLA.
"All over this campus we have emergency call boxes," said Joseph, who co-founded the Northern Uganda Medical Mission (NUMEN), a newly established medical facility that serves the people of Pader. He now serves as its overseas director. "If you're anywhere without a phone or money or electronics, you can still call for help. That's where I made the connection. I began to think about how boxes like these would be really beneficial in a place like Pader. It would be a perfect fit, and they would be sustainable."
Eight boxes are expected to be installed by the end of March in an effort to supplement and complement services already provided by the government. With the call boxes, people can speak with a government-employed clinician or a NUMEM staff member who will answer routine medical questions. If a medical emergency exists, an ambulance provided by Medical Teams International or a motorbike will be dispatched to transport patients to NUMEM for treatment.
NUMEM staff members also plan to take samples of the community’s questions and concerns to create educational outreach materials. They hope these materials will help people protect themselves from disease and better understand health risks.
"I’ve very proud and pleased that our first Global Citizenship Fellow managed the privilege and the responsibilities of the fellowship as well as he has done," said Janina Montero, vice chancellor of student affairs. "He has done a tremendous job."
A journey of consequence
Not only has he done a tremendous job, he has also taken a tremendous journey, both literally and figuratively, to get to this point. It was less than two years ago that Joseph was looking for an escape.
As a UCLA freshman, he had hit some personal obstacles, including unrelenting depression.
"I started having thoughts of ending my own life, but I decided that I was worth one more try," said Joseph, of his life-changing — and life-saving — decision to leave Southern California for rural Uganda and work as a volunteer with the American Jewish World Service. His task was to help build a community radio station in Pader, alongside former child soldiers.
He got a whole lot more than he bargained for.
Having read a book about access to health care in Haiti while in Uganda, he reached out to local medical providers to hear their stories and learn from their experiences.
One of these clinicians was Oyoo Benson.
Tales from the front line
Benson told horrific personal stories of being kidnapped and then forced to fight in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as a nine-year-old child soldier, of escaping from the LRA and spending more than six months in the hospital after being shot twice during an altercation with the LRA when he was 11. Finally came the uplifting chapter of his journey to become a medical professional.
At the time, 26-year-old Benson was practicing in a small, under-resourced clinic that had to charge more than most community members could afford. Benson told Joseph that he wanted nothing more than to create a hospital where people could get the care they needed without worrying about fees.
During his stay in Uganda, Joseph watched Benson administer stitches to a woman by candlelight as she rested on a wire bed frame. Each day, he saw toddlers come in to the clinic with life-threatening malaria. Both scenes were difficult for Joseph to come to terms with, although the latter was especially troubling.
"It was bad. For me, it made no sense. You have people dying from malaria, which is totally preventable. That should not be happening — especially to someone’s child."
Inspired by Benson and moved by the people of Pader, whom he credits, in some ways, with giving him his life back, he became determined to do something to help.
"I was thinking about my own personal issues, and I was witnessing someone who had struggled for his life – fought for his life. And now he was giving life to others, and he was doing it in such limited conditions," said Joseph. "Right before I left to return to the United States, I called him. I told him that I didn’t know how, but together we were going to help improve health care in his community."
Back at UCLA, Joseph hit the Internet and the phones, researching and doing everything he could to help get this idea off the ground in a responsible and sustainable way.
Using Skype and working through language barriers, time zone differences and bureaucratic red tape, Joseph, Benson and five other clinicians — the majority of whom were also former child soldiers — worked together to lay the groundwork for NUMEM, and began plans for fundraising, sustainability, construction and educational outreach programs. Joseph also taught himself website design and wrote content to communicate the organization’s and the health center’s mission to the world.
"As we progressed, I felt more and more alive, like I hadn’t in a very long time," said Joseph, who is also involved in several groups at UCLA. "I felt no greater debt than what I owed this community.
The NUMEM health center, which opened last May, is now the top health clinic in the district, said Joseph. And Benson and the other clinicians now sit on the new medical center’s board of directors.
Thanks to Joseph’s efforts, NUMEM owns Pader’s first and only working ultrasound in a district of 240,000 people. Joseph was present the first time a mother was able to see an image of her unborn child.
"Her face lit up like I‘ve never seen a person’s face light up before," said Joseph. "I don’t even know how to describe that."
In addition, NUMEM’s emergency medical department is now becoming stronger and more efficient. The clinic recently partnered with Medical Teams International, an NGO in Pader, to gain access to a vehicle, which will serve as its field vehicle and ambulance.
"David has an open heart for people, and he is someone who can have sleepless nights so that other people may have good health," said Benson in an email from Uganda. "He loves to see everyone happy, especially disadvantaged people. He sacrificed his time and money to ensure that NUMEM got started. He has continued to support NUMEM, and that is why it is moving forward."