She was known as the Lady Rose, admired by all for her dedication in the Ebola-ravaged Uganda. Finally she herself succumbed to the epidemic she was fighting.
Neighbours Without Borders, a US-based non-profit organization, is mourning the death of the 59-year-old head nurse Rosemary Bulimpikya on Dec. 4.
AdvertisementShe had worked in a remote Ugandan hospital so poor that families there slept on floor mats with their sick children and health care workers had no masks or gloves to guard against infectious disease.
The outbreak so far has claimed 35 lives, including those of a doctor and three nurses, and sickened 124 others.
"People are scared of Ebola, and rightfully so," said Angela Aquila-Tickler, a Petaluma hospice nurse who met Lady Rose in 2004. "There's nothing to treat it, or slow it down. You either survive it or you don't."
Aquila-Tickler was visiting the place as a member of Neighbors Without Borders, a grassroots nonprofit organization formed by three of her friends who had been volunteering in Uganda on their summer vacations since 2001. They all shared the same humanitarian ideals, and with their group they hoped to carry out the freelance export of good will, reports San Francisco Chronicle.
The world is just beginning to learn about the Ebola outbreak in Bundibugyo (pronounced Boondi booge joe). Called Bundi for short by the English-speaking population, it's the shire town of an impoverished agricultural district in western Uganda, isolated by a spectacularly beautiful mountain range, and reachable by an 11-hour bus ride, over dirt roads, from the capital city Kampala.
When Ebola victims started stumbling into the Bundibugyo Hospital from the countryside in November, a majority of health care workers fled. Doctors and nurses were soon catching the virus. Lady Rose knew exactly what was happening, and chose to stay.
"I don't know if there is much solace in dying a hero, but I admire what she did," said Aquila-Tickler.
Three years ago, the three North Bay women who co-founded Neighbors Without Borders took that arduous bus ride to Bundi for the first time to bring pencils, paper, books and chalk to a nearby school for children orphaned by AIDS.
They were drawn to the spot by Chris Friday, a young man they'd met at Makerere University in Kampala, where they had been teaching classes in nonviolence, HIV prevention and leadership skills. Friday had grown up in Bundi. He was one of six children of the head nurse at the local hospital. Lady Rose was his mother.
Friday had wanted to bring something back to his hometown. After college, he was hired as an administrator in the local government district office. He volunteered to set up Bundi Pride School, a place for children orphaned by AIDS. A local benefactor donated land, and in 2004, the villagers built the school. Today, there are 75 orphan children enrolled there.
"We feel very personally connected to the tragedy that is happening there," said Neighbors Without Borders co-founder Janet Shirley, who has been volunteering in Uganda since 2001.
The San Rafael woman, whose day job is as a counselor for Bay Area Adoption Services, is horrified by the Ebola outbreak, but is still planning another trip to Uganda in 2008.
Neighbors Without Borders sprang from shared interests in nonviolence, education and health care. She and co-founders Mary Shaver Hobi of Petaluma and Marcia Barahona of San Rafael, are members of the Humanist party, a political organization begun in South America that promotes similar humanitarian goals.
Since 2004, Neighbors Without Borders has provided Pride School with books, supplies, uniforms and is paying the $800 in tuition needed to train two local women to become teachers there.
Hobi, owner of an advertising business in Petaluma, said the school provides lunch to children who might otherwise go hungry and education for kids who cannot afford the "school fees" generally required in Africa.
"At Neighbors Without Borders, we're all volunteers," she explained. "The focus is to organize people around the ideas of treating others the way you'd like to be treated, and that everyone has a right to education, health care and a place to live."
The women have seen ravages of poverty, AIDS and malaria in Uganda, but they never envisioned they would lose a friend to Ebola.
Doctors from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have descended on Bundi to help villagers dispose of the dead, and teach sterile precautions that can prevent the spread of the disease.
Although Ebola is readily transmitted by contact with infected blood - which leaks from the mouth, nose and eyes - epidemics in Africa are sporadic and have shown a tendency to burn themselves out over several months.
But epidemiologists also fear what will happen if the Ebola virus, confined to rural or jungle regions, ever gets loose in a modern city.
Ebola strikes quickly, causing fever and body aches, followed by vomiting, diarrhea and internal bleeding. Patients often die of organ failure.
Epidemiologists believe that the Bundi outbreak is caused by a previously unknown fifth strain of Ebola virus that takes longer to sicken its victims, but may be less lethal than the other four. In some respects, this makes it more dangerous, because sick people may stay in contact with their families and neighbors longer than they would had they been stricken with a quicker-acting strain.
Neighbors Without Borders cofounder Barahona, a Petaluma marketing director for a medical device company, said that the connections she and other volunteers have made in Africa go far beyond the few weeks they can afford to travel there each year.
"All of these people have become parts of our extended family," she said. "We talk to Chris (Lady Rose's son, mentioned earlier) all the time on the phone. This tragedy has been very devastating to us."