Dr. Sam Olum: Teaching and Learning in Uganda

Daisy WinnerBlog, Medicine, Uganda

In a country where there is only one physician for every 10,000 people, physicians like Dr. Sam Olum are essential to providing care to communities. Passionate about treating patients and training the next generation of providers, Sam works as both a physician and as a lecturer at Gulu University, where he has collaborated and taught alongside Global Health Service Partnership (GHSP) Volunteers for the last four years.

In region where emigration of health workers is high, Sam has remained dedicated to his patients and students in Uganda. He recently visited the Seed Global Health offices during a trip to Boston for a conference and we spoke to him about his work.

What sparked your passion for medicine?

 SO: From a young age, I loved science and biology. I was so fascinated by what it meant for something to be alive. How does it work? It’s not a machine, its something different. Why? And it used to make me think that there’s something so special about human. So, I felt I had to learn why and how our bodies work.

And then one time, when I was in school, I got sick. And I visited a doctor and he asked some questions, inquired about my history, took some tests. The doctor was able to diagnose the illness and provided a treatment. I went home so relieved and thought doctors are the most useful people. I felt like I wanted to be part of a profession that could really help people.

Dr. Sam Olum with his family

What is your proudest moment as a physician?

 SO: When I can see a change in the life of my patient. And they truly appreciate what you have done for them. There is one that really struck me, a patient I treated recently. At this point I was starting to become interested in neurology. When this patient came in, he wasn’t speaking coherently. I sent for him to get a CT and it revealed that he had had a stroke. There wasn’t weakness of arms or anything, he was just confused. When he came back we started him on preventive care and then started him on anti-hypertensive and he recovered. Since then he keeps coming back and saying “You know, I think you should be my physician forever”

It made me feel that despite the hard work you put in, sometimes it’s just something small, that makes it worth it. It’s not just the money, it’s the appreciation. You’ve done something for me and I really appreciate it, and I feel lucky that you saw me – it made me really feel good.

Why is teaching and training important to the future of medicine?

 SO: Its like a cycle. As physicians and teachers retire and leave, you need young people to replace them. You have to make sure there are others in the path behind you. And you want to those people to well trained. I know the time will come when our generation is old and you’ll want to be able to sit back and say if I need them, I’ll be in safe hands. I’m invested in making sure that the future doctors in Uganda are well trained.

What are your goals as a physician and educator in Uganda?

 SO: I am passionate about helping people and treating patients but I’m also passionate about research and learning. I’ve become very interested and passionate about neurology and I hope that I am able to complete a fellowship in neurology – which is very difficult to do in Africa  – in  order to strengthen neurology care in Uganda.

I would like to do more research in that area but it’s difficult because we have few resources for neurology research in Gulu. My first step is to try to get a CT scanner to Gulu. All of them are in the capital, in Kampala. But if I can get one to Gulu, I think it could really benefit the hospital and the patients.