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Dream back on track for med school in Tanzania


Sept. 11 changed the patterns of many lives.

At the time, Maryknoll Fr. Peter Le Jacq, a physician, was back in the United States -- from Tanzania where he normally worked -- fundraising on the East Coast for a proposed Catholic medical school to be built on the shores of Lake Victoria.

The World Trade Center tragedy meant Le Jacq switched priorities -- from begging money to reaching out to young members of his immediate family who had lost a parent. But as the months passed, Le Jacq was able to again pick up some of the threads of his delayed Tanzanian dream for a “Bugando University College of Health Sciences medical school.”

Tanzania has three referring hospitals for 33 million people, one doctor for every 25,000 people, and one dentist for every 300,000. Le Jacq thinks big. Once he’s found funds to establish and support the medical school’s four years of study, he wants a dental school and a pharmacy school and to bring the nursing school up to the bachelor’s degree level “to develop leaders.”

He’s been able to devote enough time to the project that the first year medical students will walk through the doors in January. Le Jacq will be there.

Not all the money is in hand yet for the second year, but his network of support has expanded widely in the past 12 months and he has almost enough pledges.

Le Jacq has a habit of getting what he wants.

When he was in eighth grade he wrote a religion class essay on “Why I want to be a priest-doctor in Africa.” He wanted it because his family took Maryknoll magazine, and Le Jacq absorbed its stories the way other kids followed Batman and Robin.

“I heard a priest describe in a homily what it is to be a priest,” said Le Jacq, “letting God love people through you, and letting God love you through the people you serve. I thought that if that’s all there is to it that’s the job for me. You don’t have to do anything. You just stand there.

“I also realized from the magazine that Jesus -- though he didn’t go to medical school -- encouraged us to preach and heal. I don’t have his gift of healing, so if I wanted to preach and heal I’d have to go to medical school.”

New York City-raised Le Jacq contacted Maryknoll in 1976, was encouraged to go through the first two years of medical school, stay in touch and re-decide.

“Until the 1980s it was against canon law for a priest to be a doctor,” said Le Jacq. “That was based on the Council of Trent’s belief that medicine was magic. And they didn’t want a sacramental minister performing magic. Sisters and brothers were always allowed to be doctors because they were not sacramental ministers.”

Le Jacq would become Maryknoll Fathers’ and Brothers’ sixth M.D (four currently); the Maryknoll sisters have had 30 to 40 doctors (15 currently).

After two years at Weill Cornell Medical College, Le Jacq told Maryknoll he hadn’t changed his mind. He was sent for “a summer experience” in a Guatemalan jungle hospital in Jacaltenango where he worked with locally famed Maryknoll sister and medical doctor “Madre Rosa” (Sr. Dorothy Erickson -- see Penny Lernoux’s Hearts on Fire, Orbis).

So he could enter the seminary, Cornell agreed to let Le Jacq take a year’s leave between his third and fourth years if he passed Part 2 of his medical boards early. He studied for the exam in a Franciscan monastery in Dublin, Ireland, while doing “a little work” in medicine in a Dublin inner-city hospital.

He passed Part 2, and after his Maryknoll novitiate finished his final year at medical school.

For his New York State license, Le Jacq didn’t need a residency, but he did need an internship. “I did the bare minimum, an internship, because I didn’t want to be overtrained for the Third World and become frustrated.” Internship completed, he returned to Maryknoll until his ordination in 1987.

Then he went to Tanzania.

“When I was a child,” he said, “Maryknoll magazine made it very clear -- and unfortunately it’s still the case -- that the continent of Africa is the poorest continent in the world. It’s probably going to remain so due to the climatic fact that it’s the only place in the world that has years of drought as part of its natural cycle.”

During theological training Le Jacq had spent each summer in a different part of the world -- a Cambodian refugee camp, a dispensary in southern Tanzania’s desert, and “a little work in China as part of a Cornell exchange. I realized quickly there is no nice Third World assignment,” he said. “They’re all going to have major drawbacks. Of all the places, I thought I could function best in Tanzania.” Once he’d mastered Swahili.

“By linguistic standards, Swahili is easier to learn than French,” he said, and after four months at language school he was practicing medicine in Tanzania. He was first assigned to a Mennonite mission -- a joint operation with the government -- as a volunteer.

Bugando Hospital in Mwanza is at 3,000 feet above sea level. The shores of Lake Victoria have a daily high in the high 80s, nightly lows in the low 80s, and sunshine even during the rainy season because the rains fail to arrive.

There’s an occasional drizzle, a couple of downpours, said Le Jacq, but never enough to grow food. “We live on relief food, hunted food, or on fish from the lake,” he said.

After two years at Bugando, he spent time at the Dublin branch of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons for catch-up in tropical medicine and international health. Then, back to Bugando, the 800-bed Catholic teaching hospital built by the German Catholic agency, Misereor, in the 1960s, now operated jointly with the Tanzanian government.

The work was not the sort of practice he’d have had in New York. He tells of meeting a young woman on a local street who started to give birth right in front of him. A nurse midwife was nearby, he pulled out a pair of latex gloves to give her for protection. Carrying gloves is second nature -- 25 percent of all pregnant women in Tanzania test HIV-positive in a country ravaged by AIDS. But he did not have gloves for himself and had to work unprotected.

“I had to pull the cord off the baby’s neck, then I put the placenta in my left hand and the baby in my right hand while walking several blocks to the hospital,” he said. Along the way people greeted him casually, asking him when Mass would be that day. AIDS? “If I got AIDS, well, we figured two for one. My Wall Street friends would say that’s a good return.”

AIDS he’s so far avoided, but he’s personally battled malaria, tuberculosis, hepatitis and dysentery.

At Bugando he taught tropical medicine to physician assistants and began thinking how a medical school could be established to guarantee primary health care. The Tanzanian bishops were equally interested. The need became pressing.

“The [physician assistants] in the rural areas appropriately began referring to Bugando patients who need complicated surgery or complicated medical diagnoses and treatment. We did not have enough physicians to manage the cases coming in and were sending people back dead, in body bags, to their villages simply because there was no MD to do the surgery, or to make the diagnoses and treatment.

“That meant,” he said, “we were now at the point of undermining the primary health care person’s credibility. They were triaging people who were being sent home dead. The Catholic bishops in East Africa decided it was time for the Catholic church to establish a medical school.”

Le Jacq remained in Tanzania until 1996 when it was his turn for a six-year term in administration at Maryknoll, N.Y. He returned to America, a doctor different from most U.S. medical school graduates in matters of personal income as well as usual location. As a Maryknoll priest he gets $300 a month; as a doctor in Tanzania the government there pays him $2 a day. (When he returned to America the Internal Revenue Service demanded receipts and made him pay taxes on his Tanzanian income.)

In 2001, Maryknoll let him finish his administration term a year early to concentrate on fundraising for Bugando.

The gleam in the priest-pitchman’s eye is for an eventual $21 million to establish the various schools, plus scholarships to sustain the students, who are usually impoverished.

The pitchman surfaced: “We have nearly $2 million cash used to create the first year infrastructure -- classrooms, labs, dorms. The deans are in place recruiting heads of departments, the instructors are already taught --using Cornell’s computerized curriculum, which has already been sent over.”

Le Jacq’s race against time, he continued, is that “we have roughly $2.5 million in pledges to create the second-tier dorm -- faculty classrooms and housing, and now we’re working on the third-tier -- for third year medical school faculty -- barely a year’s lead time on each tier.”

All that and an economic downturn in the United States. “We’re playing it very close,” he admits.

A recent “Touching Tanzania” project -- that converted a Stamford, Conn., ballroom into an Africa village feast complete with stilt-walkers -- raised $500,000. And during this past year volunteer fund-raisers and organizers have begun to make Le Jacq’s task much easier.

He’s hoping to be back in Tanzania on a more permanent basis within a year. He said he needs both the satisfaction and credibility of continuing to work in Tanzania and seeks a schedule that will give half a year in Bugando, half in the United States.

That way he can fulfill a four-way mission: as a priest to the people of Mwanza, as a doctor to doctor-short Tanzanians, as a fundraiser, and as close-by kin to his young relatives still dealing with their Sept. 11 tragedy.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large.

Contact information

Fr. Peter Le Jacq can be reached at

National Catholic Reporter, September 20, 2002