Life in the hot zone

This is a love story but don’t be put off. This is a tale of humanity, infectious diseases and how two South Australians are saving the lives of Africa’s poorest people.

When Michael Findlay was in early high school his father handed him a book. It wasn’t your typical father-son gift; it was The Hot Zone by Richard Preston and it detailed the outbreak of haemorrhagic fever diseases, like Ebola, in Africa. The experience inspired Michael to someday work as a doctor in Africa but it inspired horror writer Stephen King to write: ‘The first chapter of The Hot Zone is one of the most horrifying things I’ve read in my whole life – and then it gets worse… What a remarkable piece of work.”’ Following the course he had set for himself, Michael enrolled in Medicine at The University of Adelaide and took every opportunity to work in Africa throughout his studies. It was then, at home in Adelaide, that he met Kim, the woman who would become his wife. “When I was 19, I spent three months in Kenya… Africa got into my heart, my head, my bones and from then on I knew I would live there someday,” Kim remembers. Volunteering around Adelaide in Refugee Resettlement with African communities, Kim was completing her Masters in International Development. She was introduced to Michael through a mutual friend and the pair spent much of their first meeting discussing their individual plans to move to Africa. “The idea of doing something in Uganda formed during my ‘elective’ to Uganda at the end of my fifth year of medical school,” Michael recalls. “Initially had the idea of building a hospital only, but as time went by it became apparent that there was no point offering treatment unless we were also trying to combat the reasons why people had such poor health.” “While Michael knew he wanted to provide a health service, he was aware he wanted a more holistic approach…then I came along and also had skills in Community Development,” Kim said. Together Michael and Kim founded Maranatha Health, a not-for-profit that would offer health services to some of Uganda’s poorest people as well as foster long-lasting behaviour change. In February 2011, Michael and Kim quit their respective jobs and moved to the Kamwenge District of Western Uganda and began managing Maranatha Health on the ground. In a district of 300,000 people and no practicing doctor, Maranatha Health’s outpatient clinic was quickly consulting up to 70 people a day. In January 2012 Maranatha Health opened its 20-bed inpatient clinic and their multifaceted community programs began, taking in health education, micro credit initiatives, building community cooperation and empowering local Ugandans to claim their rights as citizens. “We chose Kamwenge after consulting with the [Ugandan] Ministry of Health about under-serviced districts,” Michael points out. “Kamwenge was, by far, statistically the worst off and our visits there correlated with the statistics. Kamwenge has an under-five mortality rate of approximately 25 per cent.” With Michael managing the health services and Kim guiding the community outreach, they have built up Maranatha Health to a staff of 35 people. This is despite few resources, endemic government corruption and the confronting reality of living in poorest Africa. Kim relates the story of a close friend in Kamwenge who now looks after her three grandchildren because she has outlived every one of her six children. “I was sitting with her the other day in her very simple home, as she told the emotional story of her last daughter dying of cerebral malaria and her struggle to find the funds to transport her to hospital,” Kim said. “These are the stories that drive us, and drive our organisation’s goals – because it is a story that shouldn’t exist. No matter where you are in the world, you should not outlive all of your children – no mother deserves that much heartache.” In October 2012 Michael was awarded the inaugural James McWha Award for Excellence, which recognises the achievements of one outstanding alumni of The University of Adelaide. This month Michael and Kim return to Adelaide for the first time in nearly two years to be the guest speakers at the Maranatha Gala Dinner being held on January 25 to raise vital funds for the charity. “It is amazing what a small amount of funds can do in Uganda – for $50 we can offer life saving treatment to a child with deadly cerebral malaria. Our community team, whose work has long lasting impact, can train a group of community health workers to deliver vital health messages for just $100,” Michael said. Despite an intense couple of years, Michael and Kim’s love affair with Uganda has not faded. They know that lasting community and system change is a long-term aspiration, yet they can’t see themselves doing anything else, anywhere else in the world. “In the meantime,” Kim says, “we celebrate the simple successes – families in the village choosing to boil their water before drinking, or building their own pit latrines; a mother choosing to bring her child early to the clinic so it has a better chance of survival; or a community advocating for their rights to health and education services.” Maranatha Gala Dinner Friday, January 25 For more information: [email protected]

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