Durham County

Teens from the Durham Nativity School visit Uganda with Duke neurosurgeons

Durham Nativity School students pose for a quick picture during their recent trip to Uganda.
Durham Nativity School students pose for a quick picture during their recent trip to Uganda. Submitted

Eight students and two teachers from the Durham Nativity School recently returned from a trip to Uganda with a group of neurosurgeons.

The trip was the brainchild of Michael Haglund, professor of neurosurgery, neurobiology and global health at Duke University and program training director of the Duke Neurosurgery Program.

Starting in August, Haglund met with DNS students once a month for two hours on Thursday nights teaching leadership classes.

Haglund said he talked about leadership but most importantly he taught the boys about “grit.”

“Well, obviously they’ve been dealt lower socioeconomic status,” Haglund said. “They come from not the best situations and now they have this chance at this Nativity School, that if they work hard, they can turn it all around.”

Durham Nativity School is a free, private, all-male prep school that excepts academically gifted fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth graders with economic disadvantages and prepares them for elite, private, college preparatory high schools and acquires scholarships for its students to attend such high schools.

Haglund brought in Duke Health medical residents and faculty, who told the DNS students their personal stories about perseverance and the grit it required to reach their goals.

“They would come in and talk to them and hopefully inspire them and give them pointers and grounding things, like ‘What you’re supposed to be doing at this age ...’ kind of things, and it culminated in this trip to Uganda,” Haglund said.

Ten years ago, a pastor visiting Raleigh from Uganda told Haglund that one day Haglund would do great work in Uganda.

“He turned around and said to me ‘You’re going to go to Uganda and do great things,’” Haglund said. “I told him ‘Well, pastor that’s great but I’m doing my missionary work in Ecuador right now — wrong continent.’”

The pastor repeated: “You’re going to go to Uganda and do great things,” Haglund recalled.

Research revealed to Hadlund that Uganda only had five neurosurgeons for its 20 million people.

He went to Uganda to see for himself and inspected Mulago Hospital in the capital city of Kampala and saw that the 1,500-bed hospital that the British, who once had controlled the former colony, had given to the Ugandans at the time of their country’s independence in 1962, was neglected and “worn down,” he said.

“They were doing neurosurgery like it was 1930. They still used ether in some of the operating rooms,” Haglund said. “It was a running joke, like when the canary in the mine shaft dies, it’s time for the miners to get out. Well, when the shortest nurse in the ER faints because of the ether fumes building up, from the floor up, its time to wrap it up for the day.”

The surgeons in Uganda used a hand drill to get into skulls and a braided wire to cut bone.

“Remember those kind that we used to use in wood shop with the little yew. You had the little ball at the top and you spun the ball around,” Haglund said. “That’s what they were using to get into the skull. That’s what it looked like.”

Haglund dedicated himself to helping the situation.

“That’s when I came back and we started this Duke program, that’s taken over $10.5 million of medical equipment, about 82 tons of equipment, over the last decade and refurbished their ICUs and ORs. We brought them up to, at least close to, first world equipment standards,” he said, referring to intensive care units and operating rooms.

The DNS students stayed in the Uganda from March 17 to March 25 and while the surgeons trained Ugandan physicians and performed surgery, the boys experienced visiting a foreign country with different cultures — a new world.

The eight students learned traditional Ugandan dances, dancing and singing while Ugandan women drummed.

Giovanni Escobar, 13, was pulled into the middle of a dance circle when a woman looped a sash around his waist and pulled him in, he said.

Christopher Ortiz, 12, experienced crowded streets and markets where people walked looking straight ahead not making eye contact but having been spoken to became “so friendly, so kind,” he said.

Amir Britton, 13, got to ride a camel.

“It kneeled down and we got on,” Britton said. “It went up and we went back, leaned forward and rode.”

Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636, @CWarrenHicks