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Dr. Lucille Teasdale-Corti receiving the Order of Canada from the Right Honourable Ramon John Hnatyshyn, Governor General of Canada, April 17, 1991
Dr. Lucille Teasdale in Montréal, 1995
Dr. Lucille Teasdale was one of the first women in Quebec to become a surgeon. She spent 35 years in northern Uganda, where she and her husband, Dr. Piero Corti, built one of the most modern and best-equipped hospitals in the region. But the years she spent in Uganda were difficult and dangerous and, ultimately, cost her her life.
Lucille Teasdale was born in the east end of Montréal in 1929, the fourth of seven children. At age 12, some missionary nuns came to her school to speak about their work in a Chinese orphanage. Lucille was fascinated and decided at once to become a doctor.
She studied hard and eventually won a scholarship to enter the Université de Montréal medical school in September 1950. She was one of only eight women in her class of 110 students.
Lucille graduated with top marks. She specialized in surgery and interned at Montréal's children's hospital, Ste-Justine. After five gruelling years, she completed her training and became one of Quebec's first female surgeons.
It was while she was working at Ste-Justine that she met a young Italian doctor who was studying pediatrics in Montréal. His name was Piero Corti, and he was immediately smitten with Lucille, but she was too engrossed in her studies to notice.
To complete her training, Dr. Teasdale required experience outside Canada. Twenty hospitals in the United States turned her down ("probably because I was a woman," she said), but an offer came for a position in the French city of Marseilles. In September 1960, she sailed for France.
One day, Dr. Corti arrived at her doorstep in Marseilles. He told her he had found a small clinic in northern Uganda run by a handful of nuns and he dreamed of turning it into a first-class hospital to serve the Ugandans. Most important, he needed a surgeon and asked Dr. Teasdale to join him. After much consideration, she agreed to go for two months.
Dr. Teasdale arrived in Uganda in May of 1961 to begin her work. It was a beautiful country, attracting multitudes of tourists who came to enjoy its agreeable climate and many game parks. The following year, Uganda would gain its independence from Britain. The excitement was palpable.
Dr. Lucille Teasdale with a young patient, early 1960s
Proud parents Piero Corti and Lucille Teasdale and their daughter Dominique
Piero Corti and Lucille Teasdale, a most devoted couple after 35 years of marriage
Drs. Teasdale and Corti drove the 300-kilometre journey north and arrived at the clinic at dusk. The nuns showed them around the tiny "hospital" which consisted of one small building with 40 beds and a staff of six.
Dr. Teasdale found she was the only doctor in the region. She spent her mornings checking a long line of outpatients and in the afternoon performed a non-stop succession of operations. Her operating theatre was a makeshift table with a single light bulb.
While Dr. Teasdale worked in the clinic, Dr. Corti canvassed abroad for funds to expand the facilities. Before long, planeloads of equipment began arriving for the hospital and building began. The new facility was named Lacor Hospital, after the nearest town.
Dr. Teasdale's two-month stay stretched into four. It was only when she was about to leave that she realized how much her new life meant to her. It was also clear that she had become very fond of Piero Corti. When she reached Marseilles, a barrage of letters arrived from him begging her to return and to become his wife.
Lucille Teasdale returned to Uganda in December 1961 and she and Piero Corti were married in the chapel beside the hospital. After a short honeymoon, they were back on the job. Dr. Corti continued to handle the administration, while Dr. Teasdale examined up to 300 outpatients each morning and spent the afternoons doing surgery. The conditions were still very basic. Electricity was unreliable, clean water was sporadic and there was always a shortage of drugs.
On October 9, 1962, Uganda gained its independence from Britain. As the celebrations unfolded, Ugandans looked forward to a prosperous future. Dr. Corti had managed to expand the hospital facilities with more beds and better equipment. That same year, Lucille Teasdale gave birth to a daughter, Dominique.
Dr. Lucille Teasdale performed surgery daily from about 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Patients, with friends and family members helping care for the sick, St. Mary's Lacor Hospital, Gulu, northern Uganda
But the euphoria did not last long. Less than a decade later, in January 1971, an army officer named Idi Amin overthrew the government and declared himself president.
For the next eight years, Amin ruled as a tyrant. His soldiers killed any of his rivals, including cabinet ministers, university professors and religious leaders. By 1979, an estimated 300,000 people had died.
The fear and violence spread to the north. Fighting broke out all around Lacor Hospital and a steady influx of wounded soldiers arrived seeking help. Overnight, Dr. Teasdale became a war surgeon.
When Idi Amin was finally overthrown in 1979, Ugandans hoped for a better future. It was not to be. Another decade of civil war followed and Lacor Hospital was often caught in the crossfire. Thugs repeatedly ransacked the compound, looking for drugs or petrol; others kidnapped staff members and held them for ransom.
The 1980s brought a more personal blow to Lucille Teasdale. She had always taken pride in her abundance of energy and ability to work around the clock if necessary. But in the mid-1980s, her energy began to flag, she lost weight and she was plagued by a persistent cough. When the symptoms continued, she decided to visit a doctor in Italy whose diagnosis stunned both she and Piero Corti. Teasdale had contracted AIDS, probably while operating on wounded soldiers.
Adult outpatient ward; Dr. Lucille Teasdale with Matthew Lukwiya, the hospital's medical superintendent
Dr. Lucille Teasdale and Dr. Piero Corti on rounds in the tuberculosis ward built in 1993
In spite of the devastating news, Dr. Teasdale worked for another 11 years. When it became too difficult to carry on, she and Dr. Corti created the Lucille Teasdale and Piero Corti Foundation to guarantee the future of the hospital and for the last two years of her life, Teasdale set out on a worldwide speaking tour to raise funds for the Foundation, which today is run by their daughter, Dominique.
Lucille Teasdale died in 1996 and Piero seven years later, of pancreatic cancer. But the hospital continues to thrive. It is now one of the largest medical centres in Uganda. In 2004, 35 doctors, many trained by Dr. Teasdale, examined over 230,000 outpatients, 60 percent of them children. All 550 of the hospital's employees are Ugandans. It has also become an important research centre for the treatment and prevention of AIDS. Drs. Teasdale and Corti have left a fitting legacy.
Full transcript of the last letter from an ill and tired Lucille Teasdale.