Todd M. Woodward
Associate Vice President, Marketing Communication
In the fall of this academic year, we held our second annual Notre Dame Forum. Two of the speakers were very well known: Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, the architect of the United Nations’ Millennium Project and Dr. Paul Farmer, a Harvard professor of medicine and anthropology who is the founding director of Partners in Health and the subject of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World. Global figures with unrelenting focus and dedication, neither man had grown up or spent much time before the age of 20 in Sub–Saharan Africa. Practiced public speakers, both described the scourge of infectious disease in Africa and the admirable, if not miraculous, work being done to rid the continent of devastating plagues.
The third speaker, a quiet yet forceful woman, easily mistaken from her youthful appearance as a Notre Dame student, spoke lovingly of a beautiful country and a people who faced death on a daily basis with dignity and hope. Having traveled two days, with little sleep, Dr. Miriam Opwonya was able to put a face to the statistics and stories of which the two other global leaders spoke. Hers was a story of witness: the personal tragedy of AIDS, of friends and relatives dying before they reached their formative ages, and the fight against a myriad of fatal diseases that have left more than 1 million children orphaned in Uganda.
On Friday, our trip to Uganda came full circle. A connection loosely sewn together at the forum was strengthened when we met with Dr. Opwonya and her colleagues at the Infectious Diseases Institute (IDI) at Makerere University. To learn more about what the Institute does, I strongly encourage anyone who reads this to simply click into this link, www.idi.ac.ug, and spend five minutes learning about the extraordinary work being done by a dedicated few health care professionals in the hope of delivering sustainable, high–quality HIV/AIDScare and prevention through training and research.
What you won’t get from the website is a feel for how deeply the IDI professionals care about their patients, providing not only health care but also counseling, spiritual support, and life skills training. As Dr. Keith McAdam, director of the institute, walks us through the waiting area 300–400 people deep, he stops in mid–sentence—five, six, maybe eight times—to reach out and shake hands with the patients. He focuses only on the person in front of him; we are no longer there or important. At a health care and research facility that caters to more than 10,000 patients a year, Dr. McAdam seems to know each patient by name. I can hardly remember the names of the doctors I met five minutes earlier. It’s at that point that you understand the meaning and importance of human dignity in healing.
After the tour, we learned that the great work at the IDI may be in jeopardy. After years of support from the Pfizer Foundation, the IDI is losing their main sponsor. Being gifted in medicine and research does not necessarily mean you can market yourself. Their worst fear—and the apparent reality that I have witnessed as I travel through a city littered with now–defunct NGO acronyms—is that this institute, which calls its patients “friends,” may, in the near future, be tossed on the ever–growing mound of well–intentioned beneficiaries that didn’t make it. “One of the most important objectives of the IDI,” Dr. McAdam told us, “is to be sustainable over the long term.” The sustainability he spoke of will come through donations. In an hour–long meeting after our tour of the IDI, we agreed to work together to help build a marketing plan that builds awareness, understanding, and support for the vital role his team plays to relieve the AIDS pandemic in Uganda.
For our Notre Dame community, financial support is not always the answer to many of the economic and health–related problems of the world, particularly in Uganda and other poor communities. Opportunities for education, awareness building, service learning, and other types of involvement are available on campus through the African Faith and Justice Network, the Millennium Development Goals Committee, and the Center for Social Concerns, to name a few. Now, thanks to the generosity of Raymond Chambers, a Notre Dame alumnus and Trustee, a legacy has evolved from our 2006 Notre Dame Forum that will keep our campus engaged and active in the fight against infectious disease and poverty in Uganda.
Dr. Miriam Opwonya traveled for two days to spend less than two hours with us. She asked for nothing; she wanted simply to give us a glimpse into the plight of her country. She is working every day to forge solutions, one patient at a time. With the help of our partners in Uganda—the United Nations Millennium Development Program, the Holy Cross community, Uganda Martyrs University, and the Infectious Diseases Institute at Makerere University—we, too, have a chance to make a difference.