College of Nursing alumna travels to Uganda to aid fellow grad’s health-care and community-building efforts

by | May 10, 2017

Kelli Rowland traveled nearly 8,000 miles to reconnect with former classmate Samuel Mugaya and experience the medical missionary trip of a lifetime.
Kelli Rowland in Uganda, UMSL

UMSL alumna Kelli Rowland (second from right in back row) is pictured here with several of the children that she and friend and fellow nurse Emily Tuttle (second from left in back row) recently met during a medical mission trip to Uganda, Africa. The duo joined forces with UMSL alumnus Samuel Mugaya to support the efforts of his nonprofit organization Care for Orphans and Community Development. (Photos courtesy of Kelli Rowland)

Late one night in September 2016, University of Missouri–St. Louis nursing alumna Kelli Rowland received a message from her friend and fellow nurse Emily Tuttle.

The two women, who met while working together on an interventional telemetry floor at SSM DePaul Hospital in St. Louis, had been talking for several months about how they’d both always wanted to participate in some sort of medical mission trip.

Tuttle’s message to Rowland was a friendly nudge. It essentially said, “No really. When are we going to do this?”

They began to quickly research their options and – almost just as quickly – began to worry that the cost of travel and lodging would be out of their reach. Plus, they weren’t quite sure where they should go in order to be able to offer the most help.

But then Rowland had an idea. She thought of a former UMSL College of Nursing classmate.

Samuel Mugaya, UMSL

Samuel Mugaya assesses a young community member’s health during Cafocod’s medical mission in Busunju on Feb. 5.

“I remembered my friend Samuel Mugaya from back in nursing school, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of him sooner,” Rowland said. “I messaged him on Facebook and before I knew it, Emily and I had booked our flights to Africa for February 2017.”

Mugaya, a native Ugandan who graduated from UMSL in 2014 with his BSN, had since returned to his home country to continue his work as the director and founder of the nonprofit organization Care for Orphans and Community Development (Cafocod).

As its name suggests, Cafocod focuses on caring for orphans, other vulnerable children and women – many living with the devastating effects of HIV and AIDS – in the areas surrounding Mugaya’s home village of Kiboga. The organization strives to provide educational opportunities, access to health care and community empowerment initiatives. In fact, Mugaya’s work with Cafocod recently earned him a 35th Anniversary College of Nursing Alumni Award for Community Service.

It just so happened that at the time that Rowland’s message came through, Mugaya was working on developing a medical mission project to support Cafocod’s aims, and he was thrilled to have the women’s help.

He asked if there was any way they might be able to come up with $2,000 to help support the mission – which would include a day of providing medical services to the local community, as well as a groundbreaking for a much-needed new hospital facility in the rural town of Busunju.

Rowland and Tuttle agreed immediately. They set up a GoFundMe campaign and started selling pizzas as an additional fundraising effort.

By January, they’d only raised $400.

Kelli Rowland, Cafocod, Uganda

Here, Kelli Rowland (near left) shakes hands with a community member who came to thank the Cafocod volunteers for their work.

“We were honestly unsure if we’d be able to meet the goal,” Rowland recalled, “but then suddenly we received support from so many amazing people.”

Donations rolled in from family, friends, colleagues at SSM and even some of Rowland and Mugaya’s old classmates from UMSL.

“We actually ended up surpassing that original $2,000 goal by 200 percent,” Rowland said. “The extra money meant we could afford to provide medical supplies for the mission as well as for the building of the foundation for the hospital.”

Rowland and Tuttle arrived in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala on Feb. 2 and soon after made the roughly three-hour treck northwest to Kiboga, where they stayed in a guest house Mugaya had arranged for the entirety of their two-week trip.

Mugaya introduced the pair to his community, including members of his church and many of the orphaned children that Cafocod supports.

By Feb. 5, he, Rowland, Tuttle and many other volunteers were ready to get to work. An hour away from their home base, in the town of Busunju, 125 community members were in need of their help.

“There is a small government-operated clinic in Busunju that is only open on weekdays and is able to complete small tasks,” Rowland explained, “but any serious cases have to take the trip two hours south back to Kampala where the major hospital is located.”

The distance and the cost often make the trip nearly impossible.

Rowland and Tuttle assisted with services like HIV testing, vitals assessment, health screenings and communications with the physicians and pharmacists on hand, plus tooth extractions performed by a dentist.

The dental services in particular were something the women’s fundraising helped directly support, and therefore it was one part of the trip that Rowland says she is most proud of.

“Many of the community members had been told they needed tooth extractions and been referred to a dentist but were unable to afford the cost of transportation or the procedure itself or both,” she said. “Many others had never seen a dentist before. To be able to provide this free of charge truly helped them, and they are still telling Sam today how thankful they are because of it.”

Later, the entire medical team also participated in the groundbreaking ceremony that kicked off work on the future hospital.

Kelli Rowland and Cafocod, UMSL

Kelli Rowland, Emily Tuttle, Sam Mugaya and many other Cafocod volunteers stand with the donated bricks that ultimately became the foundation for the future hospital in Busunju, Uganda.

“Currently the foundation is complete and covered by tarps due to the fact that it is Uganda’s rainy season,” Rowland said. “The team is awaiting further funding to be able to continue the process.”

During the remainder of their trip, Rowland and Tuttle spent their time exploring and learning more about the country and the people that Mugaya remains steadfastly dedicated to continuing to help.

“We spent our time touring schools and homes, meeting children and community members and visiting places that are full of so much natural beauty – places like Murchison Falls National Park, the equator and the Nile River,” Rowland said.

While Rowland notes that there’s so much from the trip that she still carries with her, it was the open generosity of Uganda’s citizenry that made the biggest impact.

“There were so many things I learned and experienced, but what I was most impressed by was the kindness of the people. Everyone was so welcoming. They welcomed us into their homes and workplaces and answered all of our questions with honesty and kindness.”

Of course, that kindness was something she already knew a little bit about, thanks to her college friend.

“All in all, I just feel very fortunate to have met Sam,” Rowland said. “Because through him, I was able to have the experience of a lifetime. It was something I never really thought I would do, but I am so thankful that I did.”

Rowland added that she and Tuttle plan to visit Uganda again within five years – and hope to see the completed hospital in Busunju when they do.

As for the near future, Rowland plans to return to UMSL. This fall she’ll resume her studies as she works toward earning her Doctorate in Nursing Practice.

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Jami Hirsch

Jami Hirsch