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Bridges: the vaccine for the stops and starts

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

The following article is written by Dr. Luc Malemo. After graduating as a family doctor at Limpopo University in Pretoria and in general surgery in 2011 at Makerere University in Uganda, Luc Malemo returned to DRCongo where he has worked as chief surgeon, then Hospital Director before taking his current position of Director of Training programs in COSECSA DRCongo Center in Goma. He is doing a Master's in Experimental Surgery under the Jean-Martin Laberge Fellowship in Global Pediatric Surgery at McGill University. His research interest is aiming at improving children’s’ access to surgery.

Dr. Luc and team crossing Congo river in Kindu to bring medical care to children in the jungle using a canoe (2017)

While the Ebola epidemics and recurrent armed group continues to kill thousands of innocent people in Eastern DRC in the same area where the armed groups have been killing the Congolese people, I took a few minutes to meditate about my journey hoping it will inspire some people to recognize that despite the many challenges and sufferings, it is still possible to push the wall of impossibility.

I represent many Congolese children who do not have a voice to express what they have been going through since the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

My journey has been long and challenging. Starting from my days in grade school in the eastern region of the country, where I was frequently unable to pay school fees, my education is a story of stops and starts. In the early ’90s I won the University Best Student's award, but was unable to enter Medicine.  When I was finally able to switch to medical school, my studies were interrupted twice, in 1996 and again in 1998, as the Rwandan civil war spilled over the border.

In the DRC, you have to pay from day one of grade school until your college or university degree. Born from a family of two teachers who had 11 children but could not earn even $100 USD per month, I was always asked to get out of classes for non-payment from grade one to the end of my graduation as a physician. But despite missing many classes, I was always the first of my class. In 1991, after obtaining my secondary school degree, I was excited to apply for Medical School. But my dad called me and told me, ‘I know you are planning to apply, but I have to be honest - forget about pursuing any university studies because there is no money’. He loved me but he had to be honest.

But I decide to apply without a budget and without a loan and day after day continued my academic journey. Eleven years later I had to sit my final medical exams. How many classes I have missed, I cannot count. Of course, I studied many courses outside the classroom because I was not allowed in for not paying fees. But I refused to die a coward. I experienced several stops and starts during 11 years of my academic journey in medical school.

Two weeks before seating my final medical exam, I was told I was not allowed to sit this final exam for non-payment. I approached the Baptist church which promised to lend me money. The very day I was asked to get the cash, I was waiting to be paid when the volcanic eruption of Nyiragongo forced the accountant and myself to urgently evacuate Goma. The volcanic eruption destroyed the city of Goma, and I and many inhabitants flew into the refugee camp in Rwanda. The Baptist Church headquarters were buried by the lava and I was not able to receive the promised money. I worked as a medic in the refugee camp and earned enough money to be allowed to sit the exam.

After being admitted to McGill University in July 2017, I was not sure how to afford some of the costs, including the living expenses of my family left in Goma, DRCongo during two years of unpaid leave. So many costs were not covered by the scholarship. I was in front of another stop of my career. But I heard a rumour in my operating theatre in Goma, that two Canadians supporting orphans on Idjui island had found a child with a brain defect causing water accumulation in his brain and that they were looking for a surgeon who could fix the infant. They offered to pay for the whole care of the Congolese child including his transport from the village to HEAL Africa hospital in Goma and back. After operating on the child, the two Canadians came to see me in my operating room to inquire about the recovery of the child, which was uneventful. We had a 10-minute chat and the Canadians promised to pay for the remaining costs of my studies at McGill and they did it.

I am approaching the end of my training in Canada, I am so grateful to have been connected to the two Canadians and to many other Canadian friends. For the change to happen, we are planning to build the very first children’s hospital in the region of Eastern DRC, which will reach 20 million children who have no access to appropriate health care.

A child healed from cleft lip says thank you by helping us carry our stuff the day we returned.


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