She Dreamed of Africa

She gave up a six-figure salary to help a hospital in Uganda — and she has never felt richer.

By Jan Goodwin
Vivian Glyck in Uganda (Photo: Jan Goodwin)

A Miracle Worker

As our plane touches down in Entebbe, Uganda, Vivian Glyck unfolds her long, tanned legs with relief. We have just traveled 10,000 miles from California to East Africa on three lengthy flights over two long days, economy class. We collect our bags while porters, as determined as the mosquitoes that start biting even before we leave the airport, swarm around us. Outside the terminal, we are greeted by smells redolent of African evenings — charcoal cooking fires, open sewers, the acrid pollution generated by aging vehicles damaged by lousy roads, all mixing with the heady, sweet perfume of night-blooming jasmine.

Glyck, 47, still manages to look fresh and elegant, which is more than can be said for most of her fellow passengers, including me. But we are not done yet. We face a dusty three-hour van drive over bumpy washboard roads due north to the Bishop Cesar Asili Memorial Medical Center, in Luwero. No matter how late we arrive, though, we’ll be greeted by a coterie of African nuns thrilled to see Glyck; she is, in their words, a miracle worker.

Finding Her Way to Uganda

Not so long ago, Vivian Glyck’s commute took her from her San Diego kitchen, black coffee in hand, to her home office, where she worked as a marketing consultant to such high-wattage clients as Dean Ornish and Deepak Chopra. But in May 2006, she visited Africa, looking for a way to help; when she saw the hospital in Luwero, she had her answer. The 50-bed facility, a series of one-story buildings with chickens scratching in the yard, was practically the only one serving an area that was home to 650,000 people. It had no running water and lost electricity for weeks at a time. This meant no refrigeration for medicines and vaccines; women gave birth by the light of a lantern. Worse, there was no doctor, in a region where malaria and HIV/AIDS are rampant.

The Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church, a Ugandan Catholic order, were running the facility on the tiniest of budgets. "They did the very best they could, but conditions were heartbreaking," Glyck says. She asked the center’s administrator, Sister Ernestine, what she needed most. "A generator," the nun replied, expecting Glyck to go home and forget about it.

Back in California, however, Glyck promptly raised $30,000, the price of a generator, by appealing to everyone she knew. At the same time, she formed a foundation, Just Like My Child, because the hospital needed so much more. Then she hit her first roadblock: Her own nascent board objected to wiring $30,000 to Uganda before the charity’s structure was solid. Launching a Glyck charm offensive — I would see her do this to great effect in Africa — she smiled and told them, "Yes, but the hospital needs electricity now." She won that battle; today the precious room-size generator, which supplies electricity to the hospital and small adjoining convent, sits inside its own heavily barred shelter, where it is safe from thieves.

"I can’t tell you how surprised I was when Vivian promised things and then delivered," Sister Ernestine says. "This had never happened before." The generator was only the beginning. A few well-placed phone calls led Glyck to a California physician who was willing to sponsor a Ugandan doctor’s salary; soon an MD moved from Kampala, the capital, to join the staff. In order to receive antiretroviral drugs from the government, the hospital also needed a CD4 diagnostic machine, which determines when HIV has progressed to AIDS. A new machine costs upwards of $100,000. Glyck exhaustively lobbied the Clinton Foundation in New York until it gave her entree to a company that donated a long-term lease on a refurbished one.

"How could I not make the effort?" Glyck asks. "To date, more than 17 million Africans have died from AIDS, and another 22.5 million are infected with HIV. That’s more than the Holocaust, more than the tsunami. I’ve got 20 years of marketing and business experience to do what I’m doing: making connections, using the Internet to generate interest and money." Glyck visits Uganda several times a year; at home, she telecommutes and holds "friend-raisers." While she never formally quit her consulting business, she let it dwindle. "Just Like My Child is more than a full-time job," she says.

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