Dear Tingasiga: Devastated. Shocked. Speechless. That was my reaction to the news that Dr Abel Rwendeire, a former Ugandan Cabinet minister and vice chairperson of the National Planning Authority, had died prematurely at age 66.
Rwendeire was a very good man who epitomised what was beautiful about humanity.
He was that rare politician that understood the difference between partisan competition and healthy social intercourse. One felt very safe sharing alternative views with him. He was equally generous with his honest observations and opinions, the true intellectual in him allowing room for amending positions when faced with verifiable evidence or a different interpretation.
Uganda was very lucky to have him.
Kigezi was blessed to count him among her most eminent sons and daughters. Kibuzigye, his village of which he was immensely fond and proud, reciprocated the feelings. He never left Kibuzigye, of course, for that was what had nurtured him in his childhood. It was always in his heart. The rest of his journey was mere fine tuning.
A scientist of great repute; a scholar, teacher and administrator; an honest politician and people’s representative; a high-level international civil servant; a strategic thinker and planner; and, lately, a leader in the effort to reboot Makerere University, his troubled alma mater. Rwendeire was all these and more, and served without a trace of personal or public scandal, and with total commitment to the task at hand.
I shiver to think that a man who was so full of life, very much in love with life and with an unfinished agenda of public service, is forever gone from our midst. Yes, I accept the reality of his death, but I ask why he died? Was his death preventable?
I don’t know, of course, but it is a question that must be asked and answered.
It is not enough to declare it God’s will as though our Creator has not given us the wisdom and means to save lives. I certainly challenge the concept of Ahurwendeire, the full version of his name, which means: “Whenever death wishes.” Our ancestors surrendered to death. We are dedicated to the struggle against premature death. And we can win!
According to media reports, Rwendeire suffered a heart attack. They also report that he had hypertension.
When did his final symptoms begin? Which healthcare professionals, clinics and hospitals did he seek help from? What tests were done and when? What advice was he given?
I urge the Uganda Government to appoint a coroner to review Rwendeire’s death with the goal of identifying what, if anything, could have been done differently to enable a better outcome. If we do not learn from his and all other deaths, we risk the lives of the living.
Rwendeire has left a great legacy. However, let the explanation of his death be the greatest legacy to our country.
Whether preventable or not, his death can serve to advance healthcare standards in our country and, hopefully, save the lives of other people who face the risk of being part of a frightening worldwide statistic.
One of the major health challenges of our time is the high burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which kill 40 million people globally every year. This is equivalent to 70 per cent of all deaths every year. According to the World Health Organisation, 15 million of these deaths occur among people aged 30 to 69 years.
More than 80 per cent of these deaths occur in low and middle-income countries.
The majority of these NCDs are heart and blood vessel diseases, followed by cancers, respiratory diseases and diabetes.
Genetics, environment, body function and lifestyle have a significant impact on the development of these diseases.
Whereas prevention is the most important measure, early detection and treatment of these NCDs, offer the patient a chance of a full and productive life. Equally important is recognition of symptoms and signs of a potentially catastrophic event, most especially when one presents to the doctors with chest pain.
Any chest pain must never, ever be dismissed as “nothing.”
It must never be explained away as “indigestion”, anxiety or other condition without taking a very thorough history, examining the patient, performing diagnostic tests, consulting with experts in heart and lung diseases and observing the patient in a facility equipped to intervene in the event of a sudden change in condition.
The experienced doctor always considers a broad range of possible causes of chest pain. She does not lock herself in a narrow diagnostic path that may lead to a wrong decision and a disastrous outcome for the patient.
Top on her list of possible causes of the patient’s chest pain is acute coronary syndrome (poor blood flow to the heart muscle), aortic dissection (splitting of the body’s main artery), pulmonary embolism (clots in the blood vessels to the lungs), pneumothorax (air leakage from the lungs), pericarditis with tamponade (inflammation of the covering of the heart) and esophageal rupture (a tear of the gullet) as the most dangerous causes of chest pain.
These can deceptively mimic less dangerous conditions.
And they are fast killers. Yet when caught early, they are treatable, with very good outcomes.
Perhaps Rwendeire died from one of these. We do not know. An explanation of his death might save the lives of others. That would be the best tribute to him.