‘A great blow to Uganda’: surgeon John Baptist Mukasa dies of Covid
Kennedy Owuor first fell over in his hotel room in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, before headaches followed. He initially brushed the symptoms off as a minor problem, but soon he started having difficulties speaking and moving.
A trip in August 2020 to northern Uganda, as part of his duties working for the UN’s food agency, had to be interrupted. He was instead driven for 12 hours to UMC Victoria hospital in Kampala.
There, John Baptist Mukasa, one of only 13 neurosurgeons working in Uganda, performed surgery that took three hours and saved his life. Owuor has since fully recovered, but in June, Mukasa died aged 54 of Covid-19, the loss of his expertise a huge blow to a country of 47 million people.
Patients and friends have paid tribute to a man who declined lucrative opportunities overseas to work in Uganda, training a new generation and always, as a colleague put it, going “an extra mile to understand the social factors affecting his patients”.
Owuor, the Kenyan saved by Mukasa, says the news of his death hit him “like a thunderbolt”.
“We had become friends. We exchanged WhatsApp messages regularly and also spoke on the phone. His passing is such a big loss for Uganda considering the country does not have very many neurosurgeons,” he says.
Mukasa visited Owuor daily while he recuperated in hospital in the weeks after surgery. “He always had a professional, humane and reassuring way of dealing with my concerns,” Owuor added.
Mukasa worked primarily at the Mulago National Referral hospital in Kampala, and was a senior lecturer at Makerere University. He specialised in neurotrauma, pediatric neurosurgery and epilepsy.
Neurosurgery was virtually nonexistent until the late 1960s in Uganda, according to a 2017 scientific report.
Until the early 2000s, there were only a couple of Ugandan neurosurgeons, while foreign doctors filled the gap. Mukasa was part of a second wave of neurosurgeons trained overseas, graduating in medicine from Lugansk State Medical University in Ukraine. He later went to China to do his postgraduate degree at Wuhan’s Huazhong University of Science and Technology.
Juliet Sekabunga Nalwanga, Uganda’s first female neurosurgeon, met Mukasa when she was an intern.
“He was one of my mentors and teachers. He was a generous, jolly and interactive person and we as a team are still recovering from his loss,” she says.
“Things that I can’t forget [about him is] driving in and out of hospital, at night and on holidays, sitting in the operating room while observing our work, humbled always to learn from us too. This we will remember.”
Simon Mukuye, senior neurosurgery resident at the Mulago hospital, met Mukasa in 2017.
“He was very often the first one to help out a student in trouble,” he says. “I remember he was the first person to lead a fundraising drive for one of the students that required a neurosurgical procedure that could only be done in India.
“Dr Mukasa was a very kind and down to earth person. He always went an extra mile to understand the social factors affecting his patients, besides their neurosurgical diseases. He was unassuming and he regularly consulted the other neurosurgeons on every case he managed. He always put his patients first before every thing else.”
Mukuye says Mukasa rarely missed a day of work. “I remember him during Christmas holidays coming to the hospital every day to attend to the multitude of neurosurgical patients who flocked the hospital,” he says.
His death, he says, “dealt a great blow” to neurosurgery and training in Uganda.
Hervé Lekuya Monka first met Mukasa while doing his master’s in surgery. Mukasa was one of his teachers and a thesis examiner. He says he was still in denial about Mukasa’s death.
“He would be ready to stop any of his activities for solving patients’ issues,” he says. “He got several opportunities to work overseas, but declined all of them because he thought it unfair to leave his country that is in serious need of neurosurgeons.”
Owuor says that during a visit in 2020 the doctor had been upset about a poor family who had travelled many miles to bring their critically ill child to the Mulago hospital for help but could not afford the surgery.
Mukasa made the surgery happen.
“Dr Mukasa was selfless, and highly committed to his professional calling as a surgeon,” Owuor says.
Mukasa is survived by his wife and two sons.