CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 3 . . . . September 30, 2005
Teasdale’s story is one of a remarkable life lived in the service of others. It is a tale of hope, of love, of unimaginable hard work, often in very difficult circumstances, and fortuitously, of visions realized.
Born into a working class family in Montreal in 1929, Lucille Teasdale became the only member of her family to complete high school. Encouraged by her father and with financial support in the form of a scholarship, Teasdale entered medical school at the Université de Montréal in 1950, graduating cum laude five years later. She decided to specialize in surgery, a rare choice for a woman, and she interned at a children’s hospital in Montreal. In 1960, she became one of Quebec’s first women surgeons. To complete her training, Teasdale moved to Marseilles, France, for a final surgical internship in pediatric surgery.
Piero Corti, an Italian doctor who had studied radiology and anesthesiology in Milan, met Teasdale in Montreal where he was studying pediatric medicine. He had a dream of building a world-class hospital in a Third World country and believed that a small mission hospital near the village of Lacor, not far from the small city of Gulu in northern Uganda, might be the seed for his vision. Because Teasdale had long dreamed of helping children in a needy country, she agreed to take up Piero’s offer to join him as a surgeon for two months in the spring of 1961. Four months later, she returned to France but couldn’t forget Piero and the Acholi people they had doctored. By December, she had withdrawn from her French internship, returned to Uganda, married Piero Corti and embarked on a 35 year medical and family partnership. From the start, Lucille served as doctor and surgeon while Piero performed anesthetic duties and most of the administrative functions, including fundraising.
The workload was heavy and the conditions quite rudimentary. Gradually, they were able to attract interns from Italian medical schools and Ugandan interns from Makerere University in Kampala. Ever growing numbers of patients made the need for locally trained medical personnel more pressing. In 1973, Teasdale and Corti opened the Lacor Nursing Training School, the first nursing school outside of Kampala. The hospital also had grown. By 1974, there were over 200 beds, two dispensaries, a laboratory a radiology department and three satellite clinics providing health education and services in remote areas.
In the 1970s, during the dictatorship of Idi Amin, soldiers with gunshot and other wounds became the main clientele at Lacor Hospital. Teasdale was now a war surgeon. Following Amin’s overthrow in 1979, civil war brought more years of war surgery and violent attacks upon the hospital and its staff. While peace remained elusive, the situation improved considerably in the early 1980s, and Corti continued to raise funds for renewed expansion of the hospital. Workload for the hospital staff continued to grow as patients suffering from what came to be known as AIDS began seeking treatment in large numbers. In 1985, Teasdale received the devastating confirmation that she was also infected with the HIV virus. She probably contracted the disease when operating on infected soldiers whose bone chips often sliced through her surgical gloves.
With amazing fortitude, Teasdale continued doctoring, often working hours that would tire a healthy person. She endured a succession of illnesses but continued to work with Corti to establish the Lucille Teasdale and Piero Corti Foundation that would raise funds to permit the hospital to continue to serve the people of northern Uganda. In recognition of her lifetime work, Teasdale was inducted as a Member of the Order of Canada in 1991. The United Nations recognized the couple in 1995 with the African Cause Award. In the spring of 1996, the couple returned to Italy to be near Corti’s family and their grown daughter, Dominique, who had become a medical doctor like her parents. In August of that year, Teasdale died, but her body was flown back to Uganda for burial at the Lacor Hospital compound.
Like other books in the “Quest Library,” this volume includes a lengthy chronology by Valerie Frith in two columns: “Teasdale and her times” and “Canada and the world.” The chronology includes awards and facts not elaborated upon elsewhere in the text. The final entry under 2005 reports the devastating earthquake and tsunami that actually occurred in 2004. Other features include a useful index, list of sources, a map and black and white photographs.
Cowley skillfully weaves quotations from Teasdale’s correspondence into the text. She also draws upon interviews with family members and friends as well as notes from her week-long visit with the couple in 1989, several television documentaries and a French language biography of the couple. The result is an authoritative, fast-paced biography that tells the story of a selfless medical couple, and illuminates some of the struggles of their chosen home, Uganda, in the years following independence from colonial rule. As well as being one of the largest and most important medical centres in Uganda, the Lacor Hospital serves as a refuge for several thousand night commuters, mostly children, who seek shelter from the guerilla forces that might kidnap, rape or kill them. Teasdale and Corti’s work continues to help young people in need.
Val Ken Lem is a librarian at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.
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