A medical doctor and a surgeon by profession, Rosario Iannetti joined the Comboni Missionaries as a Brother in 1992. He has been working in South Sudan, Africa’s newest country, for the last 15 years. Since 2002, he has been in Mapuordit, where he transformed the small mission dispensary into a hospital with more than 100 beds.
“In 1995 – Brother Rosario says – I went to Wau to work at federal state hospital built by the German Leprosy Relief Association. Most of my patients came from outside the town to collect periodically their medicines; some were killed while crossing the line between guerrilla and government held land. I reached the conclusion that it was not possible to work in those conditions and I requested my superiors for a transfer to the other side, where there was no health care at all.
In 2001, after a year of intensive surgical training in a Comboni Missionary Hospital in Uganda, I was assigned to the community of Mapuordit, a village built in 1993 by displaced people. There, I found a clinic made up of three huts, run by Sr. Moira, an old Australian Sister helped by a few local medical assistants.
The bishop asked me to start a small surgical unit with the help of the Slovak Catholic University of Trnava, which sent an operation inflatable tent. They also sent 2 to 3 doctors in rotation every 3 months. We started operating in March 2002. In 3 years, we did more than 1,000 operations. The coming of peace in 2005 allowed us to accelerate the program of constructions, and the hospital rapidly grew to the present 112 beds in 5 permanent wards.
Indeed, a remarkable feat…
However, the biggest challenge has been to form local paramedical staff: nurses, laboratory technicians, operation theater nurses, etc. We employed qualified nurses from the Ugandan missionary hospital of Matany, to train on the job our local staff. Our dream to open a proper Nursing School for Certified Nurses became a reality in 2008 with the help of the Italian Cooperation and the Italian NGO CISP. On November 7, 2011, the first batch of 11 nurses graduated from the School, after two years and a half of intensive training.
How badly people need medical care in South Sudan?
South Sudan has the highest maternal mortality in the world. The statistics are vague, but we estimate that about one mother in every 15 dies from complications related to pregnancy. UNICEF says that, in South Sudan, a girl has more chance of dying because of pregnancy than finishing her primary education.
The two civil wars, lasting from 1956 up to 2005 – with only a short interval between the two – have prevented the development of health services and, above all, the formation of South Sudanese qualified health staff. Children mortality rate is very high – about 20% die before reaching 5 years of age, mainly, due to malaria, diarrhea and pneumonia. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS is rapidly increasing as prevention and treatment are extremely difficult due to the high illiteracy rate and lack of mass media outlets which could spread health education.
Do you feel fulfilled as a missionary serving as a medical doctor?
Yes, medicine is a great tool to show the love of God for people, which is the basic element of the announcement of the Good News, especially in this area of first evangelization. Most of my patients are followers of traditional religions. Being admitted in the hospital is often for them the first chance to hear about the Christian faith. This is evident from their curious and astonished faces when, from afar, they observe us celebrating Mass every Sunday morning in the hospital. To serve as a doctor is also an occasion to show that God is present, in a special way, in the least of our brothers and sisters, that God does not forget the poorest and most abandoned.
Do people appreciate your work?
People appreciate very much my work, although they do not express it often by words, but I can sense it especially from their worry when I have to leave the hospital for a few days and from their happiness when I come back. They are aware that the hospital is a big gift from God for this remote area.
For them are you, first and foremost, a missionary or a doctor?
They consider me a “missionary doctor“ quite different from the dozen of volunteers or employed doctors who have passed by and stayed for a short time, not only because I have been here now for 10 years but probably also because they see me fully involved and incarnated in this reality.
Hospitals are places of great suffering. Don’t you feel your faith being challenged by the dramas you encounter?
Hospitals are places of suffering, but especially of healing. Most of our patients enter the hospital in poor conditions and leave it healed and happy enjoying again a healthy life. The sufferings of our brothers and sisters call us to show them solidarity and love, especially when the disease is not curable. Rarely my faith is questioned by the dramas. On the contrary, most of the time, it is reinforced by the answers to these dramas which God gives through so many people of goodwill.