Nuns’ Mission Grows on Lake Victoria

By Vincent Too

Amid the serene beauty of the shores of Lake Victoria lies a mission hospital named St. Elizabeth, Lwak. This small, isolated facility was opened in the early 1960s by the Franciscan sisters of St. Ann, from The Netherlands. When the nuns first toured the lakeside, they found only primitive bush. They decided to erect a hospital, and began by constructing a small section mainly for outpatients and maternity services. Gradually, the hospital grew to include a maternal and child health unit. The Sisters had two main goals: heath and education. Because their focus was on educating girls, they also opened a series of missionary schools including Lwak Girls Secondary School, Nyangoma, Nyamonye, Uradi , Aluor, Barkorwa, Awasi, Koru, Rapogi. In 1968 they started an orphanage in Nyangoma to cater for children whose mothers had died in childbirth.

While the care at first focused largely on expectant mothers and children, the ongoing and virulent presence of malaria around the lake led the missionary caregivers to open a general ward where men could also be treated. The arrival of HIV/AIDS in the area prompted the introduction of a clinic to provide specialized HIV care and treatment. The hospital continued to expand to house a laboratory, X-ray and well stocked pharmacy. St. Elizabeth, Lwak, also boasts a tuberculosis clinic, visiting doctors for eye checkups and a feeding program for malnourished children — a recurring concern because unreliable weather conditions can cause food shortages. Another service is male circumcision, performed only with the consent of a boy’s parents or a referral from a local church. And the hospital offers free ambulance services for critical cases.

The hospital gets nearly all its pharmaceutical supplies from MEDS (Mission for Essential Drugs and Supplies), a Christian organization that works in partnership with the Kenyan government. Drug prices through MEDS are fair, and quality is assured through testing. MEDS also offers free training seminars for hospital staff. Investigators from MEDS visit the hospital to check on client services and to keep tabs on how the medications the group supplies are being used.

The hospital has a full pharmacy and patients are expected to pay for their drugs. But cash-strapped patients undergoing HIV/AIDS and other treatments can work with a special department that can subsidize the medications. A team of five staffers follows up on patients receiving HIV treatment in the community, making sure that they are taking their medications.

The hospital also receives support from Terres des Hommes, Netherlands, an international charitable foundation that supports services for children. These funds help pay some staff members, as well as helping to provide drugs, maternal and child health services, and follow-up care and outreach in the community. Additional assistance comes from KARP (Kenya AIDS Response Program), an effort launched by the Kenyan government.

St. Elizabeth’s is also a research site where the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fund and collaborate with the Kenya Medical Research Institute to conduct studies that provide free medication to patients with conditions such as fever, cough, diarrhea and jaundice. These and other funders also routinely visit the hospital to assess its care-giving and to ensure that funds are being used appropriately. The hospital consistently has been ranked tops in management, finance and clinical services.

Monica Ochenge, one of the community health workers, had her own take about the hospital. Although some people assume St. Elizabeth’s does not offer free services because it is a private facility, it does provide free services for children under five years. “The hospital has also trained its community health workers for the benefit of the community surrounding the facility,” Ochenge said. Ochenge herself has received support from the hospital, as she is HIV-positive. She receives her drugs at no cost.

Sometimes the hospital runs out of drugs–not because they are not available, but because the hospital lacks the cash to buy them. Another challenge is that the facility lacks adequate space to admit more patients. Some patients default on payments for their treatments after they have received the services, forcing the hospital to shoulder the cost. The geographical location of the facility is another hurdle to its effectiveness due to the poor road network