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)

Glyck herself is surprised by how she ended up doing charity work. She was 42 when her son, Zak, was born in 2002; she and her husband, Mike, a technology consultant and Internet marketer, wanted another child. "I had back-to-back miscarriages," she says. "After the third one, I couldn’t do it again. I got very, very down. People tried to comfort me, but I went to a dark place. I’d find myself sitting in my car at traffic lights, sobbing inconsolably."

At about that time, both Bono and Angelina Jolie were in the news for their humanitarian work in Africa. "I found myself thinking, holy shit, if they can do something to help, so can I," Glyck says. One night shortly afterward, she sat bolt upright in bed, woke Mike and told him, "I have to go to Africa." Soon after, Glyck was in Senegal with a local church group when an Italian photographer told her about Sister Ernestine. Next stop, Uganda.

A Region in Peril

The Bishop Cesar Asili Memorial Medical Center sits on a road leading to a childhood home of Uganda’s despotic former ruler, Idi Amin. After Amin’s regime fell, Luwero District, still reeling from the dictator’s genocidal purges, was the site of a brutal six-year bush war in the 1980s, during which thousands died and piles of human skulls lined the roads.

Today Luwero is a sleepy backwater baking in the sun. As it desiccates, red soil covers everything in a thick dust. Surrounding the hospital is a shantytown of corrugated-iron shacks and tiny impoverished stores selling a few cookies, homemade snacks, and used bicycle parts.

At five-foot-ten, Glyck towers over most of the patients at the hospital. In her denim miniskirt and black tank top, which sets off her exercise-toned body, she is a dramatic counterpoint to Sister Ernestine in her gray habit. Fast-talking and quick-thinking, Glyck bends and bobs to greet adults and children alike.

Skinny Perpetua Namugenyi trails us, craving hugs. She wears a blue-and-white school uniform, of which she is inordinately proud, with one knee-sock at half-mast. Stunted from early malnutrition and frequent bouts of malaria, at 12 she looks 8, and her mental age is younger. Orphaned at 7 and HIV-positive, she was surviving on her own when Sister Ernestine discovered her trying to boil water over a cooking fire in the dark. The nuns found a place for Perpetua to live and enrolled her in school. They make sure she eats lunch, her main meal, at the hospital.

In 2005, Perpetua nearly died of malaria. Every year she has three to four episodes, any of which could prove fatal. Malaria is the number-one killer of children in Uganda. The night we arrived, an 18-month-old boy was admitted to the hospital with the disease; he was dead the next morning.

"It’s insane that they don’t have bed nets," Glyck says. While a lifesaving insecticide-treated mosquito net for a hospital bed costs $10, and for an ordinary bed as little as $6, these prices are prohibitive in a region where most people are subsistence farmers. Shortly after our trip, Glyck went into battle again, contacting the President’s Malaria Initiative, Malaria No More, and the United States Agency for International Development, all of which had nets but didn’t have the Luwero hospital on their radar. Now they do. USAID told her to buy some nets herself first to prove the hospital was serious about preventing malaria. Glyck found an American donor who anonymously gave her $50,000 to do just that.

"Everything I said I would do was before I had the resources to do it," she tells me. She has few qualms about pledging to supply antiretrovirals for 1,000 HIV-positive mothers who come to counseling sessions at the hospital. "It costs $480 to get antiretrovirals for one mom for a full year, or $480,000 for 1,000 mothers," she says. "I will get the money somehow." Already she has come up with funding for a mobile health unit ambulance and is closing in on a surgical suite. "We’re also going to start some microfinancing projects," she says.

Glyck believes in holistic philanthropy: focusing on all the interrelated needs of a community. To that end, she intends to move beyond healthcare into education. "The U.N. has consistently advocated for the education of girls, which has the single largest impact on the developing world," she says.

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