A Human Being as a Human Being

This post was originally published on the IntraHealth International blog.

One of the things I like
best about my job at IntraHealth International is that I’ve been able to incorporate photography into my work to support health workers around the world. Recently I was overjoyed to see one of my photos included in an article about frontline health workers in the Huffington Post. Here’s the story behind the photo.

Philo with patients

On an April morning outside of Lira Regional Referral Hospital in Uganda, Mary Philomena Okello takes a few moments to sit and joke with one of her favorite young patients.

Philo is a nursing officer at the hospital, where she provides palliative care to clients who are in great pain or have life-limiting illnesses, such as cancer, heart disease, or HIV/AIDS. Since January she has cared for 277 people, and she usually sees about 15 to 20 patients a day. Many of her clients are children—AIDS orphans for whom, she says, she does what she can to help them die peacefully.

Even as a young girl, Philo wanted to become a nurse. “I used to admire their uniforms,” she recalls. “They were smart.” But more than that, she felt a pull to help people in need.

When she’s not working at the hospital, Philo can be seen riding her motorcycle across the countryside, visiting clients’ homes and teaching care-givers how to care for their loved ones.

“I am the only person who is trained as a technical palliative care officer in this whole area,” she says—an illustration of Uganda’s desperate shortage of health workers. Her district is one of only 50 out of Uganda’s 112 districts where palliative care is available to clients.

“The patients are many, people dying without palliative care,” she says. “They are dying in pain. I need more people trained.” Now that she’s in her late fifties, Philo worries about what will happen when she retires.

On this morning outside the hospital, though, she doesn’t look worried. She looks like she loves her job.

“I love palliative care,” she says. “It has changed my life. I now see a human being as a human being. There is no pretense. You tell the truth to the patient and their families. And that closeness with that person—it makes me happy.”

Sarah Dwyer and I interviewed Philo that day. Learn more in the publication we produced about Uganda’s efforts to strengthen health workforce information for better decision-making (and retirement planning!)—just one way in which the country is addressing its health workforce shortage.

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Photo by Carol Bales