I am a medical and science writer, associate director of cancer communications at the Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio, and the author of The AmFAR AIDS Handbook: the Complete Guide to Understanding HIV and AIDS (W.W.Norton, 1999).
My admiration for the doctors at St. Albert’s began with my first visit to the hospital in December 2000. I spent several weeks there while in southern Africa on a Fulbright grant (http://www.cies.org/stories/s_dward.htm). As I got to know the hospital’s Zimbabwean director, Elizabeth Tarira, MD, MPH, and Neela Naha, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist, I was taken by their extraordinary dedication, courage and resourcefulness in caring for the destitute and underserved as Zimbabwe’s economy and healthcare system collapsed around them. Upon retuning home, I gave talks to university, student and civic groups to raise awareness of the hospital’s plight.
A desire to do more to help Elizabeth grew from a poignant email I received from her in February 2001 recounting the aftermath of a cyclone that swept through Mozambique and Zimbabwe and of growing political violence:
“Yes the valley has been hit by the floods. Quite a good destruction occurred. Those fragile huts were swept away, some just collapsed. Yesterday I went round in the army helicopter with the Minister of Lands and Agriculture to see the affected areas. It was my first time to fly on a helicopter. I do not know yet what the post-disaster will be like. We are anticipating cholera, malaria and diarrhoeal outbreaks. We keep our fingers crossed. It is obvious that people are hungry also. With the excessive rains our road was not possible to use. Patients were being left at the 2 km peg because the public transport could not get to us. I had to down my stethoscope and put on an overall to go and repair the road together with those women from the township who sell vegetables and fruits.
The political situation is escalating. A doctor and three nurses at Mount Darwin hospital and one of my nurses at David Nelson clinic have been driven away from the workplace by the war veterans. 5 workers at the Post and tele communication have also been chased away. It is difficult now to have telephones repaired. For the past 6 days phones were down. If one is not of the ruling party in this part of the country it is a risk. Luck enough we here have nothing to do with politics because our mission is to provide service only. To work is getting harder and harder with very few drugs.” (For the full email and others, see Elizabeth’s Letters.)
In June 2001, the U.S. State Department’s Speaker and Specialist program invited me to participate in HIV/AIDS-related workshops in Botswana and Zimbabwe that were intended to help journalists and NGOs write more effectively about the AIDS epidemic. I also spent several days at St. Albert’s. Later, I gave talks about the hospital’s circumstances to medical students at Washington University School of Medicine and to the International Student Organization (ISO) at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, among others. This talk resulted later in a donation from an ISO fundraiser that collected $1,428.00, which the students wired to the hospital’s Zimbabwe bank account.
The following year, I participated in AIDS-related workshops in Swaziland, Lesotho, and South Africa. That year also, The AmFAR AIDS Handbook was translated into French, updated and published as Comprendre Le VIH/SIDA: Le guide de l’AmFAR (Nouveaux Horizons, 2002) for use in francophone African countries.
The book’s translation and distribution by the U.S. State Department’s Africa Regional Service, led in February 2004 to an invitation to provide HIV and AIDS education to medical students and to students at three secondary schools in Mali; to media in Dakar, Senegal, and in Banjul, The Gambia. In Monrovia, Liberia, I spoke to groups that included evangelical ministers and factory workers.
In October 2004, Elizabeth Tarira wrote to say that drought was drying up the hospitals bore holes (wells), and that the hospital was in danger of being closed. She planned to dam a seasonal stream that runs through the hospital’s farm project. The resulting reservoir would provide an alternate water supply for the hospital and perhaps the mission. She was already seeking funds for this water project from donors in Italy and Europe. To help Elizabeth raise money for the water project, as well as the hospital, my wife, Barbara Ward, and I – with Ellen Hoover, a friend and Web designer – started the St. Albert’s Web site (stalbertsmissionhospital.org/).
About this time also, Zimbabwe’s postal service became unreliable. Rather than mail donations to the hospital, we and other friends of St. Albert’s hospital began sending donations to Elizabeth through the Associazione Sanitaria Internazionale in Rome.
I next visited St. Albert’s in January 2006. A highlight of that two-week trip was meeting Thomas Taschbach, a German nursing student who was volunteering at the hospital. We became friends and continue to correspond. That September, I gave a talk about the hospital to public-health students at Oregon State University. Afterward, a prenursing student and former Peace Corps volunteer, Tim Harris, asked me about volunteering at the hospital. He spent Christmas break there. Several nursing students, a young pediatric physician, and a Peace Corps volunteer finishing his tour in Namibia have since volunteered at St. Albert’s.
In October 2008, Darrell Ward, Barbara Ward, along with friends Pamela Potter, Susan Ramsey, Anne Massaro and Janet Stuckey, began organizing Better Healthcare for Africa, Inc., a public charity devoted to improving healthcare access, treatment and education for the marginalized and underserved people of Zimbabwe and other African countries.
BHA received its 501(c)3 designation from the Internal Revenue Service in 2009.