A trailblazing Canadian surgeon puts her life on the line
Dominique Corti, as a child, with her mother Lucille Teasdale Corti.
Photo: courtesy of Dominique Corti, M.D., Teasdale-Corti Foundation
Montréal’s Lucille Teasdale Corti was one of Canada’s first female surgeons. For more than 30 years, she devoted herself to working at the Lacor Hospital near Gulu in northern Uganda, sometimes amid war and violence.
Teasdale had been invited to work at Lacor Hospital by her future husband Piero Corti, a doctor from Milan, Italy, whom she had met in Montréal. Piero had been interested in establishing a hospital abroad and the opportunity to grow the small clinic into a full-fledged medical facility had presented itself. He needed a surgeon and convinced Lucille to work with him in Uganda.
St. Mary's Hospital Lacor, photograph by Mauro Fermariello
Teasdale arrived at Lacor Hospital in 1961. This would be the beginning of a lifelong career in meeting the needs of the region’s population and training Ugandan medical staff. Working at the hospital posed many challenges. In the beginning, Teasdale Corti was the only trained surgeon and she had a heavy workload. Outside of her usual surgery schedule, Teasdale Corti was on call 24 hours every day of the week for medical emergencies. She often had to teach herself new surgeries by consulting medical texts.
New problems arose at the hospital in 1971 after Idi Amin’s coup plunged Uganda into conflict and economic collapse. During this period the area around Lacor Hospital was relatively calm, but it was still difficult to obtain badly needed supplies. The electricity needed to power the hospital became unreliable meaning generators were required to keep things running. If the power failed while performing a surgery, Teasdale Corti would pause for a few minutes until a backup generator came on. It was at this time that Teasdale Corti and her husband Piero decided that their daughter Dominique could stay in Uganda no longer. Dominique’s safety was of concern, but so to was access to a good education since the coup had led to the disintegration of Uganda’s educational system. Lucille and Piero made the difficult decision to send nine-year old Dominique to Italy to live with her father’s relatives.
Idi Amin’s overthrow in the late 1970s led to decades of civil unrest in Uganda and the area around Lacor Hospital was in the thick of it. Wounded soldiers and civilians began to arrive at the hospital and Teasdale began treating them. The hospital became a target for various armed factions. Parts of the complex were destroyed, drugs were stolen, and medical staff was kidnapped. A lack of necessary supplies continued to be an issue. Even so, Teasdale Corti and the rest of Lacor Hospital’s staff maintained professional standards even in the darkest periods of the hospital’s history.
Teasdale Corti could have left the violence and hardship behind. Yet, she chose to stay. She once told a journalist:
“I am very lucky to have been born with…moral strength. You either have it or you don’t. If you have it, you can keep on facing all the difficulties that turn up every day. If you do not have it and if you reach that point when you feel you just can’t take it any more, then you pack up your suitcase and go back home. But if you are convinced by what you are doing, if you truly believe in it, then you stay. There is no other way.”
It was while performing surgery on wounded soldiers in the mid-1980s that Teasdale Corti cut her hand on shattered bone fragments. She found the best way to remove bone fragments caused by a gunshot was by picking them out by hand. Unfortunately, the fragments were so sharp that they cut through Teasdale Corti’s surgical gloves and into her hand. From this injury she contracted HIV which later became AIDS. Teasdale Corti continued to work after being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS but limited herself to perform only life-threatening surgeries and then only when no one else qualified to perform such surgeries was available. She continued to work for 10 years after contracting HIV/AIDS and passed away in 1996.
During Teasdale Corti’s career in northern Uganda, Lacor Hospital went from a forty-bed clinic to a full-fledged medical complex with 450 beds and a training centre. More than 250,000 patients are treated at the hospital each year by more than 600 Ugandan staff in addition to hundreds of medical students.
Dominique Corti carries on with the work begun by her parents. She is the President of the Teasdale-Corti Foundation in Italy and a board member of the foundation’s Canadian wing. She is involved in ensuring Lacor Hospital has the financial, technical and logistic support it needs to continue serving those who rely on the hospital for its medical services and those who are trained at the complex.
The life story of Dr. Teasdale Corti is featured in the Canadian Doctors in the Field exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. This exhibit explores the experiences of three Canadian doctors who chose to work in conflict zones.