Juba Link proves invaluable project

After combined service of more than 50 years at St Mary’s Hospital, it would have been easy for Tim and Zorina Walsh to slip quietly into retirement. Tim was consultant surgeon at the Island hospital for nearly 25 years while Zorina was initially senior surgical secretary and later the Post Graduate Centre manager.

But rather than head for the golf course or the Solent to spend some leisure time together, the husband and wife team embarked on an ambitious project to help people less fortunate than themselves.

For the past five years they have been heavily involved in the setting up and running of the St Mary’s Hospital, Isle of Wight-Juba Teaching Hospital Link. It is a charitable organisation linking St Mary’s Hospital with Juba Teaching Hospital in South Sudan, with the sole aim of developing health education in that country. The ‘Link’ as it is known, is supported by St Mary’s Hospital, and is highly respected both in this country and in South Sudan.

It enables qualified medical staff from this country, including surgeons and physicians, to make the eight-hour flight to South Sudan to help train doctors, who in turn are finally improving the standard of medical care in the former war-torn African country.

Tim explained: “We both retired at a stage where we were still quite active, and at the time a report came out trying to promote the health links with other countries. We also knew Eluzai Hakim, a consultant physician at St Mary’s who was born in South Sudan, who was keen on developing something in that country.”

Tim and Zorina, who live in Roud, smiled: “We then had an email from Eluzai saying ‘now you are retired I have just the job for you’, and that is how it all started.”

Having gained independence from North Sudan less than two years ago, the country with a population of some 10 million had virtually no development or health service. Tim said: “That was the real challenge. When we went out for the first time the hospital in Juba was catering for one million people and had just one surgeon. The hospital had been run by the Red Cross during the civil war, but when the conflict stopped they left. It wasn’t even a proper hospital, but former British Army barracks, with no running water, very little electricity and a lack of basic equipment.

“There is a considerable limitation on the numbers of doctors and nurses there. People were coming out of medical school with various qualifications, and were desperate for more knowledge, but were just being dumped. It was not exactly bereft of doctors, but it was bereft of doctors with the necessary skills to work independently. So we are sending people out there to train them, and create a situation whereby they can run the service for themselves.”

Tim and Zorina have subsequently been involved in three major projects to enhance the medical standards in Juba and the outlying districts.

“The first was the re-opening of the school of nursing and midwifery at Juba, with the help of other charitable organisations, which we are now supporting,” the couple explained.

“We also realised the huge difficulties of accommodation and the cost of it in Juba for people going there to help the situation. So we have fund-raised to build a six-bed guest house in the complex, which has cost £150,000 and is now complete, although we still owe £15,000 on it. The accommodation will enable us to get people out there to train doctors, but with zero accommodation fees.

“We are also working with a group of Links – mainly from the Wessex area – to set up a training programme for doctors who have come out of medical schools and have no further training to go to. We want to train them over two years to be fit for purpose.

“South Sudan needs a group of health care professionals who can go to the district hospitals and be able to provide the care that is needed at that level, and to lead and develop the service.

“If you send people there just to provide the service, rather than develop it, in 10 years time the country will be in the same position. The Health Service needs to be developed, not just propped up.”

Overall there are around 40 hospitals in South Sudan, but quality is sadly lacking. Some drugs are available, but many basic ones are not. Food is not available in hospitals, so invariably family members set up camp in the grounds of the complex to cater for a patient.

Tim and Zorina’s challenge and their fund-raising are ongoing, but many positive strides have been taken since they began. Money to fund medical staff visits to South Sudan is raised from the likes of charity auctions, car boot and table top sales, with some charitable funding. The couple even took part in the TV programme ‘Cash in the Attic’ to raise extra cash.

Tim and Zorina admit there is still a lot of work to be done, but they have also set up the ‘Friends of the Juba Link’, which has an annual subscription fee to bring in extra revenue, and are pleased to welcome new members and donations to help such a worthy cause.