Toronto-born surgeon Dr. Paul Thistle has settled into his new position at the Karanda Mission Hospital in Zimbabwe and his Peterborough donors intend to join him.
For the last decade a small but passionate group of grassroots donors have raised money for the efforts of Thistle and his wife Pedrinah as they carried out medical work and teaching with a focus on maternal child health and HIV/AIDS at the Salvation Army Howard Hospital in rural Zimbabwe.
During his 16 years as chief medical officer at Howard, Thistle leveraged a massive network of Canadian donors to keep the hospital funded and equipped and helped pay many services for the community such as sending orphans to school. Peterborough donors alone sent an average of $30,000 each year.
All that came to a halt when the Salvation Army removed Thistle from his post in August 2012 under a cloud of controversy. Thistle's supporters say he was removed for blowing the whistle on corruption within the church, an allegation the church has denied, calling Thistle’s removal a routine personnel decision.
Thistle now operates as a surgeon at the Karanda Mission Hospital near Mount Darwin about 100 kilometres northeast of his previous site and about 200 km from the capital of Harare. There, an estimated quarter of a million people are served.
Last month three of Thistle’s long time Peterborough supporters – Brian Nichols, Larry Gillman and David Abramsky travelled to Karanda for the first time.
Gillman said the hospital is in a more remote area of the country than Howard and serves an area with poorer roads and even poorer access to water and decent farm land. During his three-week stay, Gillman said the hospital was lucky to get an hour of running water on some days.
“It’s a more isolated hospital,” Gillman said of his trip. “It seems to be in a more rural, poorer area.”
Rural Zimbabwe remains one of the poorest places on earth and continues to be ravaged by the effects of HIV/AIDS.
An estimated 10,000 children alone are infected with HIV in Zimbabwe each year, with 90% from mother to child transmission.
The three Peterborough volunteers saw that first hand when they organized a clothes and food drive for orphans in the surrounding villages and were inundated with more than 400 orphaned children.
“About 400 orphans showed up. Think about that, 400 just in the area of the hospital,” Gillman said. “It’s a clear sign of the problem when you see those orphans. That’s all HIV/AIDS.”
Karanda was established in 1961 to meet the needs of mission stations in the Zambezi River valley. The mission complex has a nurse training school for about 55 students and a primary school offering Grades 1 to 7 for children of the hospital staff.
Supporters such as Gillman were devastated when Thistle was forced out of his position at Howard and volunteers in Peterborough lost their connection to a place they held close to their hearts.
There were also financial implications as more than $40,000 in building materials raised during two high-profile Peterborough fundraisers in 2011 and 2012 went missing from Howard grounds shortly following Thistle’s ousting.
But that’s not going to prevent suporters from reaching back into the well and convincing Peterborough residents to once again support Thistle’s work, Gillman said.
“You can see Paul and Pedrinah start to get their tentacles out into the new community,” Gillman said.
“Paul and Pedrinah have taken their talents somewhere else. It’s a shame what’s going on with Howard, but people understand that. Howard was fraught with its own politics … it doesn’t negate the work that Paul and Pedrinah are doing to save lives.”
Nichols, Gillman and Abramsky will be holding a gathering Jan. 29 at 7 p.m. at the Beth Israel Synagogue to talk about their recent trip and they invite the public to attend. Supporters are also ramping up for another big fundraiser in late spring.
What: Stories from Karanda Mission Hospital in Zimbabwe
Where: Beth Israel Synagogue at 775 Weller St.
When: Jan. 29 at 7 p.m.
Who: Peterborough volunteers Brian Nichols, Larry Gillman and David Abramsky will talk about their visit to Zimbabwe last month.