By Marguerite Jill Dye
This time of year, we often reach out to loved ones and sometimes to people we haven’t met yet. It’s a time to give gifts and bestow blessings through kind actions because some of the best gifts cannot be bought: they are given from deep in our hearts. The gift of ourselves lifts others up. Sometimes a visit or just a call is treasured far beyond a material gift for it keeps us in touch and connects our souls. A card with a thoughtful personal note may remind a friend how much we care. While these holiday gestures are good, some people’s efforts go far beyond.
Health care workers are a special breed. Their lives are devoted to serving others. Our lives often depend on them. Anne Lezak and Dr. Harry Chen are Vermonters who are serving through giving. Their lives of service inspire us all.
Following decades of work in health care and public service, Anne Lezak and Dr. Harry Chen, formerly of Rutland County, were ready to live their dream overseas where they could do the most good. So Anne and Harry packed their bags, closed their Burlington home, and flew to Africa for the very first time, on a major leap of faith.
Anne was matched with Mobile Hospice Mbarara, the largest and first Hospice in Africa. Peace Corps Response recognized her skills in fundraising, marketing, grant writing, and teaching, which were needed to develop the program’s sustainability. Anne wrote and sought funding to recruit, train, and equip 35 community outreach volunteers to educate the public and conduct home visits to teach patients’ families palliative care.
Harry, Vermont’s former commissioner of health, emergency room physician and critical care specialist, was needed to develop that nation’s first ER medical care through the Global Health Service Partnership. He treated patients along with five post graduate medical trainees and prepared them to lead Uganda’s emergency medicine.
Uganda is the size of Oregon with a population of 45 million, who speak seven tribal languages. The rule of law is nonexistent, as are systems like the railway, dismantled by dictator Idi Amin. Due to unchecked corruption and graft, resources are scarce and unreliable (like basic medical equipment and medication). The patient/staff ratio of 50,000:1 leads to delays and poor outcomes.
One third of African men were dying from AIDS during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s when nun and physician Dr. Ann Merriman founded Hospice Africa Uganda. In 2003, George W. Bush initiated PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, to provide antiretroviral drugs. It was a great success and the number of Africa’s hospital patients with AIDS has dropped to 12 percent, with education and continued availability of the medication.
Unfortunately, 87 percent of patients in Africa now suffer from cancer, and the highest rate is cervical cancer among young women with several children. There is only one radiation machine in all of Uganda and chemotherapy is unavailable and costly. Dr. Ann Merriman secured legislation for free liquid morphine for anyone dying of cancer, but only 5 percent of patients who need it receive it, but only half a dose. Supplies run out.
The World Health Organization has decreed that palliative care is a human right. It’s specialized medical care for symptom relief for people with serious illness, and improves the patient’s and family’s quality of life. USAID now allocates 70 percent for preventive medicine and palliative care.
Anne Lezak and Dr. Harry Chen’s yearlong work in Mbarara was extremely challenging but also deeply gratifying. Anne said that working with her Hospice team gave her the best sense of community she’s experienced in her life. Harry’s role as tutor and mentor for five devoted future leaders is a gift that will keep on giving. Together, Anne and Harry kept a fascinating blog about their complicated work and thrilling African adventures that is insightful, informative, and enjoyable.
When Harry and Anne returned to Vermont, they declared, “Hakuna matata — it will be yet another adventure.”