Dr. Matthew Lukwiya was born in Kitgum (Northern Uganda).
He soon distinguished himself at school: top of his class in primary school and top school-leaving marks in the country. He attended Makerere University Medical Faculty through a series of scholarships. He was among the very first interns to arrive in Lacor Hospital when this hospital was approved for the internship of newly graduated medical doctors in 1993. His exceptional medical skills and human qualities were immediately evident: in his report to the government authorities on Dr Matthew’s probation period, Dr. Corti stated that following the series of “outstanding” and “above average” marks, his final comment was that “the marks given are self-explanatory: Dr Lukwiya will soon make an outstanding physician”.
The years between 1996, when Dr Matthew started working as a medical officer in Lacor Hospital, to 1989 were characterized by an armed conflict against the Government headed by Y. K. Museveni. Lacor Hospital was often targeted by guerrillas who would loot and sometimes abduct nurses to be ransomed for money and drugs. In 1989 during one such looting Dr Matthew took responsibility as head of the hospital in the Corti’s absence (he was Deputy Medical Superintendent since 1988) and offered himself as a hostage instead of the targeted Italian nuns. He was dragged through the bush by the rebels for one week before being released. The Cortis, who had immediately returned upon hearing the news of his abduction, believed that both staff and students could not continue to work at such price and decided to close the hospital and start evacuation. After some very tense days, the rebels promised not to enter the hospital again; they did not enter again, and the hospital remained open and active. In the years of the conflict, he also played an important though unpublicized role in advocating for a peaceful solution to the war.
In order to allow him some reprieve from the stress and heavy hospital workload, in 1991 Dr Corti obtained a sponsorship for Dr Matthew who took a Masters in Tropical Paediatrics at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Prof. Coulter stated “He was an outstanding student and with his wide experience contributed enormously to the course. He won the John Hay prize for the highest marks on the course.”
He became Lacor Hospital’s Medical Superintendent in 1997. His duties combined being head of paediatrics with a very large workload and limited staff, running a large institution and managing child health and immunisation services in the community, including refugee camps. He had a particular interest in haematology and oncology. He had experience of managing outbreaks such as cholera, and he demonstrated his particular organisational skills during a large outbreak of meningococcal disease that affected northern Uganda in the early 1990s. Despite his heavy workload, he also took part in non-medical community activities, in the peace and reconciliation initiatives and was a prominent member of Rotary.
In October 2000, Dr. Matthew was finishing a Masters in Public Health course in Kampala when the hospital requested that he return to Lacor to investigate the unexplained deaths of some patients and three student nurses during the previous month. Dr. Lukwiya quickly came to the conclusion that it was a haemorrhagic fever, probably Ebola, and immediately instituted control measures: he organized a special isolation ward and ambulance teams for bringing the victims to the Hospital or to be buried, encouraged and led the staff who has volunteered to risk their lives caring for these patients. He contacted the Ministry of Health, which led to the involvement of WHO and CDC Atlanta. What really impressed the international experts, journalists and reporters and later the world information services was his selfless leadership, compassion and example in coping with an enormous problem. Only volunteers were expected to nurse and treat the patients. Staff shortages resulted in excessively long shifts and fatigue. One night, an infected nurse became very restless and confused and began coughing and vomiting blood profusely. When Dr. Lukwiya was called to restrain and help the patient, he put on protective clothing, as usual, but not goggles. His sleeve became contaminated with blood as he tried to lift the patient. The infectiousness of the patient’s secretions was such that he and two nurses were all infected that night. Within a week, he showed symptoms of the disease; 6 days later, on December 6, he died.
The Ebola virus outbreak was thought to have started in Gulu in August 2000, and the last cases were reported in January 2001. Of a presumed 425 cases in Uganda, 224 (53%) died. This included 13 medical workers – 11 nurses, one medical assistant and Dr. Lukwiya.
Matthew Lukwiya now lies at peace within the grounds of the hospital to which he dedicated his life, buried beside Lucille Corti and Piero Corti. His task is over but the memory of his life will be woven into the fabric of St. Mary’s, an example to many others.
Extracts from “Obituary for Dr. Matthew Lukwiya, Medical Superintendent of St. Mary’s Hospital Lacor, who died of the Ebola virus” By J.B.S. Coulter, published in the Annals of Tropical Paediatrics 2, vol 21:2001