She Dreamed of Africa

by Jan Goodwin

Vivian Glyck gave up a six-figure salary to help a hospital in Uganda—and has never felt richer.
Africa nonprofit
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 M.D. 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. 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 No. 1 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

by Jan Goodwin | Friday, March 27, 2009 | Career Change, Nonprofit Jobs

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