Vocation Story: South Sudan – A Brother to cure the sick

“The medical care offered to the sick is more than a profession; it is the fulfilment of my missionary vocation. The work of a doctor is a mean to manifest the love of God for people, especially the most vulnerable and the sick”. A Comboni Brother tell us his story

I am a religious brother and a doctor by profession, more specifically a surgeon. My missionary vocation to be a brother for Africa brought me to South Sudan in the year 1995 and since then I carried on to work as a doctor, initially in Wau (1995-1999) and later on in Mapuordit (2001-2016), where I founded the Mary Immaculate Hospital. Few years ago I moved back to Wau (2016-present).

When I was only twelve of age, I watched a TV documentary which presented the life of Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) who was a missionary and doctor that spent his entire life in Africa to assist the poorest and most afflicted. I was enchanted by his witness and wishes to do the same.

Once I completed my secondary education, I registered (1980) to attend the medical school of Naples, my home town, in Italy. I was cherishing my dream though I did not yet know whether I would go to Africa for a short time as a volunteer or for my entire life as a consecrated missionary.

Meanwhile I met the Comboni Missionaries that had a community in Casavatore (Naples). I went to visit them regularly, and entered a journey of discernment about my life. During summer 1986 I had the chance to have a short working and missionary experience in the hospital of Kalongo (Uganda) under the direction of the “servant of God” Fr. Dr. Joseph Ambrosoli. I was so enthusiastic of that experience that I spent also the following summer holidays (1987 and 1988) in a rural hospital run by the Comboni Missionary Sisters in Gaichanjiru, 70 km North of Nairobi.

In 1988, as soon as I graduated as a medical doctor, I joined the postulancy in Bologna (where I was allowed to specialize in Emergency Surgery), followed by the novitiate in Venegono (VA) and my religious profession on May 23, 1992. I got the chance to attend a diploma degree on tropical medicine in Liverpool (UK) and training on leprosy in Madras (India). In 1994 I was in Cairo (Egypt) to learn Arabic but I had to interrupt it after one year because the Hospital of Wau had urgent need of my help.

I left the language books to go quickly to Wau and be at the side of Fr. Lorenzo Tommasoni who was also a doctor and the director of the NLTC (National Leprosy Training Centre) founded in Wau by the GLRA (German Leprosy Relief Association), a big hospital for people affected by leprosy but that during the war was ready to offer medical care to any sick person. Those years (1995-1999) were tough because of the conflict between government and SPLA. I tried to offer my help to everyone, the people of the town and the people of the villages that were affected by the conflict. I had often to take care of the emergencies, and I came to realize how much a surgeon was needed.

Therefore, in 2000, after a sabbatical year, I was in Kalongo – once again – to be in the operating theatre and learn more about surgery from a renowned Italian surgeon who operated there. In 2001 the Provincial Superior sent me to Mapuordit (located in the Diocese of Rumbek) because Bishop Mazzolari had decided to develop the primary health-care unit into a rural hospital.

 When I arrived I saw that the health-care centre was made up only of three grass-thatch huts, and was run by an Australian religious sister called Moira, and several community health workers. The work they did was great, but there was not an operating theatre and many surgical cases had to be referred by plane to the ICRC hospital near Lokichokio, in Kenya, over 1.000 km far.

With the support of the Catholic University of Trnava (Slovakia), I initially set up a tent where I could do some surgery already in 2002. For the following three years I did more than a thousand operations under the same tent.

The comprehensive peace agreement of the year 2005 gave me the chance to further develop the hospital building. In a short time, the hospital developed from the initial 40 beds arranged in several huts to the current 112 distributed in 6 wards made of permanent brick buildings.

Once the construction of the hospital was completed, I had to face another challenge: the formation of new South Sudanese nursing personnel. Therefore, in 2008 I opened the Nursing School for Certified Nurses with the support of the Italian Cooperation and an NGO called CISP. In 2011 a first group of 11 students graduated and since then every year new certified nurses can join the work in the hospital of Mapuordit.

The medical care offered to the sick is more than a profession; it is the fulfilment of my missionary vocation. The work of a doctor is a mean to manifest the love of God for people, especially the most vulnerable and the sick. Many patients of our hospital are non-Christians that have their first contact with Christianity when they are hospitalised. Therefore, my work as a doctor becomes a Christian ministry where I can witness to the patients the love and goodness of the Lord who heals people. Moreover, I can also form good Christian health workers that see God present in the poor and the sick. The hospital of Mapuordit is indeed a wonderful work of God’s mercy and love. (Br. Rosario Iannetti)