Friday, October 31, 2014
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Piero Corti and Lucille Teasdale

 

Courage and determination are intrinsic elements in the history of the Cortis and of their hospital. During the Idi Amin (1971-78), of the second Obote (1979-85) regime, and during the long, over 25 years' vicious insurgency by the Lord’s Resistance Army (1986-2006), the hospital has been attacked, ransacked and looted for drugs and nurses have been kidnapped many times. Piero avoided death on one occasion in 1979 when a burst of machine-gun that was fired at him was deflected by wire on the hospital gate. Lucille, infected by HIV when operating probably on gunshot wounds, demonstrated enormous courage, dignity and selflessness and continued working for many hours a day right up to the time of her death.

Piero Corti was born in Besana Brianza (Italy) in 1925, the fifth of ten children of an entrepreneur. He graduated in medicine, cum laude, in 1950.
Lucille Teasdale was born in Montreal (Canada) in 1929, the fourth of seven children of a tradesman; she graduated in medicine, cum laude, in 1955.
 
They met in 1958 at St. Justine’s, the paediatric university hospital in Montreal where Lucille had started her specialisation in paediatric surgery and Piero was doing an internship in paediatrics. Both of them dreamed of practicing where there was most need.
 
After returning to Italy to finish his specialisations (paediatrics, neuropsychiatry and radiology), Piero journeyed to India and Africa, “looking for the right place” where to start his life’s dream. He finally accepted Bishop Cesana’s invitation to settle in Gulu, in Northern Uganda, in the small hospital that had been founded by the Diocese two years earlier.
 
While organizing his departure from Italy he received a post card from Lucille, who had won a scholarship to Paris for her last year of postgraduate training. Piero asked her to accompany him to Gulu “for a couple of months” to get the surgical ward up and running. She accepted. To make a long story short, the two doctors fell in love and discovered their life’s engagement: on December 5, 1961 they were married in the chapel of the hospital’s Comboni Sisters. Their dream was “to offer the best possible care to the greatest number of people at the least cost”. This objective has guided the hospital ever since.*
 
The Bishop accepted Piero’s condition: the autonomy to run and develop the Hospital, at the condition that he find the funds to do so.
 
In the early years, Piero and Lucille were the only doctors at the hospital. Their only daughter was born in 1962, Dominique Atim. Following the military coup by Idi Amin in 1972, the feared insecurity prompted the Cortis’ to send their daughter abroad to school; from then on she would return only during her holidays.
 
In 1979, when Amin was overthrown, Lucille Teasdale, by now better known as "Dr Lucille" found herself a defacto war surgeon. It was probably during this period that she contracted AIDS while operating on the many war-casualties, as she repeatedly cut herself on shattered bone fragments.
 
In 1979 Piero became the coordinator of the “Unified Programme for Northern Uganda”, supported by the Italian government, the Ugandan government and Doctors for Africa CUAMM (an Italian NGO), which involved health care in seven missionary and two government hospitals, for a total of 2,500 beds covered by 30 Italian volunteer doctors. Although Lucille did almost all the surgery and was responsible for other clinical activities as well as part of the teaching, she was considered by this project a simple “volunteer”, as she had been “kidnapped” by Piero just before completing her final year in paediatric surgery and receiving the diploma.
 
In 1986, Doctors Piero and Lucille Corti were awarded the highly coveted Sasakawa World Health Prize by the World Health Organisation, for the Primary Health Care programme they established at Lacor. Piero was awarded the Silver Medal for Civil Merit by decree of the President of the Italian Republic, the motivation for which clearly reflects his character “Medical director of a hospital, in the course of extremely serious incidents and shootings, heedless of the danger, he remained on site to continue his work and to defend the medical equipment from probable looting. A shining example of true self-denial and the utmost sense of duty, March 28, 1989. Lucille was made a Member of the Order of Canada on April 19, 1990 and received several other distinctions for her work with AIDS patients.
 
In 1994 Piero and Lucille achieved another long-planned dream: two foundations, the “Fondazione Piero e Lucille Corti” and the “Teasdale Corti Foundation” were approved in Italy and in Canada respectively, with the aim of contributing to the Hospital’s future through fund raising, technical assistance and logistical support.
 
In the same years, they were appointed Honorary Consultants by the Ugandan Ministry of Health. They were nominated Members of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic. At the United Nations, the CICA (International Centre for the African Cause) awarded Lucille its Prize for International Excellence for contributions to Africa in the humanitarian aid category, with a special mention and an accompanying letter from the Secretary General of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros Ghali.
 
In 1996 Lucille’s health condition gradually worsened. Despite this, she continued to work 6 hours a day in the outpatient department, though weighing 35 kg and keeping herself going with i.v. fluids. In April, Piero took her to Italy in an attempt to improve her state of health, but she continued to worsen and died in Besana on August 1, 1996. Piero took her body back to Uganda so she could be buried in the heart of the hospital compound. She is estimated as having performed more than 13,000 surgeries in her career. In 2001, she was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.
 
For Piero the following years were full of great sadness and solitude. He suffered a fourth heart attack in September 1996, but continued to dedicate himself more and more to the Foundations, which he considered essential to the Hospital’s future. The Ebola viral haemorrhagic outbreak and Dr Matthew’s death were a final blow. In February 2003 he was sent to Italy for ill health and was diagnosed an inoperable pancreatic cancer: he died in Milan on Easter Sunday. He too was taken back to Uganda to be buried alongside Lucille (on her right, according to the Acoli tradition) and Matthew, in the hospital compound.
 
MAIN HONOURS RECEIVED:
 
Lucille Teasdale
1982, Officer of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, awarded by President Sandro Pertini
1986, “Paul Harris Fellow” Rotary International – Italy
1986, “Sasakawa Health Prize”, by the World Health Organization
1990, Member of the Order of Canada
1995, “Honorary Consultant for the Ministry of Health of Uganda” by the Uganda Ministry of Health and Makerere University Senate
1995, “Prix D’Excellence pour la Cause Africaine”, by CICA, with letter by Boutros B. Ghali
1995, Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec
2004, Gold Medal for Civil Merit by decree of the President of the Italian Republic
 
Piero Corti
1976, “Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Sylvester Pope”, Vatican City
1982, “Officer of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic”, awarded by President Sandro Pertini
1986, “Sasakawa Health Prize”, by the World Health Organization
1993, Silver Medal for Civil Merit by decree of the President of the Italian Republic
1995, “Honorary Consultant for the Ministry of Health of Uganda” by the Uganda Ministry of Health and Makerere University Senate
2003, “Paul Harris Fellow” Rotary International – Italy
2004, Gold Medal for Civil Merit by decree of the President of the Italian Republic
 
For further information:
“To make a dream come true – Letters from Lacor Hospital, Uganda”, 2009, Corponove (the book can be obtained from the Foundations info@fondazionecorti.it in Italy or info@teasdalecorti.org in Canada)
 
Videos:
Before I go, by Michel Arseneault:
 
* "In 2004, during interviews, all staff and board members emphasised that the hospital's key responsibilities were to serve the poor in need of medical services and to respond to the demands of stakeholders by adjusting their operations. Formulated by Dr Corti in the early days, Lacor's objective – “to offer the best service possible to the largest number of people at the lowest cost possible” - has guided the organisation ever since.  Volker Hauck: Resilience and high performance amidst conflict, epidemics and extreme poverty. The Lacor Hospital, northern Uganda. ECDPM Discussion Paper No 57A - September 2004"
 
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