Wanda BlenskaBMJ 2015; 350 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h640 (Published 23 February 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h640
- Ned Stafford, Hamburg
As a child in her native Poland, Wanda Blenska had one dream in life: to be a missionary doctor in Africa. But after completing medical studies in 1934 at the University of Poznan, Blenska was rejected by missionary organisations that operated hospitals in Africa.
The reason? She was an unmarried woman. She was told that if she were willing to become a nun attached to a convent they would send her to Africa. Although a devout Catholic, Blenska declined.
As she explained years later: “The missionaries were convinced that with the closed convent life of the sisters and long distances to the nearest white community, no solitary lay worker—especially a woman—could stand the arduous life.”
So Blenska remained in Poland, working at various hospitals—but she did not give up her dream. She held it tightly during the Nazi occupation of Poland during the second world war, while serving with the Polish resistance, and then during the subsequent Soviet occupation of Poland. She carried the dream with her when she escaped to West Germany—to find her ailing brother—by hiding in the coal room of a freight ship by bribing a guard patrolling the docks. Her next move was to England, where she worked in hospitals and studied at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the late 1940s.
In Liverpool, she met a bishop from Africa who told of vague plans to build a new “leprosy settlement” in Uganda. Still a single woman and still holding tightly to her dream, she decided in 1950 to risk travelling to Africa before the leprosarium was built. She landed in Mombasa, Kenya, and then travelled to Kampala, Uganda, where she took a temporary position at a missionary hospital near the not yet built leprosarium.
The leprosarium was never built, so the next year Blenska moved to a small, already existing leprosarium run by Irish Franciscan nuns in the village of Buluba near Lake Victoria. She was the leprosarium’s first permanent resident doctor and also the first European lay woman that many of her patients had ever seen. Locals initially referred to her as “the woman in the dress.” She eventually became known and addressed simply as “Docta.”
Blenska would spend the next 43 years in Buluba. As the missionaries back in the 1930s had warned her, she did experience times that were extremely arduous. Blenska provided patients with what she once described as “the most potent psychosomatic drug” of all: loving care. She served as the top medical administrator of the centre and also trained and lectured African doctors, medical students, nurses, and other personnel in leprosy care and treatment. Under her medical leadership, the little outpost grew into the St Francis Leprosy Centre, respected for modern treatment methods, research, and training.
“She was my teacher, and I attribute what I became to her mentorship,” says Joseph Kawuma, a globally renowned leprosy expert, who began working at St Francis in the late 1970s. “From the time we started working together she referred to me as her son and treated me like one.”
Kawuma, whose current positions include medical adviser in Uganda for the German Leprosy and Tuberculosis Relief Association and chair of the World Health Organization’s technical advisory group on leprosy, says Blenska taught him to focus on each and every patient as an individual with his/her own needs, not simply as a statistical number.
“Our agreed starting point for every patient was a handshake, even for patients with hardly any hands left,” Kawuma says. “She was visibly irritated by any actions that hurt patients—for example, pointing out a change on the patients’ skin, using any object other than your own fingers.”
Kawuma describes Blenska as an excellent physician, who worked long hours to provide “holistic care for every patient,” especially the most severely disabled leprosy patients and terminally ill patients. “Her holistic approach led her to excel not only in clinical medicine but also as a reputable leprosy surgeon, an eye specialist, a histopathologist, and a counsellor,” Kawuma says.
Starting in 1956, Blenska also was involved in leprosy research, which included immunological investigations and the development of potential vaccines. She cooperated with the Medical Research Council at Mill Hill in London, with researchers in the Netherlands on treatment trials with B663/Lamprene, and with researchers in Germany for a multidrug treatment using rifampicin, isoprodian, and long acting sulfonamides. She is the author of several research papers.1 2 3
Blenska stepped down as medical superintendent of the leprosy centre in 1983 and was replaced by Kawuma. She remained active at the centre for the next 11 years as a consultant and senior lecturer and continued to provide Kawuma, he says, with “mentorship and guidance.”
“She was a very simple and generous person,” Kawuma says. “Her life was based strongly on prayer and faith.”
He adds that she always maintained a close relationship with nature. “She kept a little monkey as a pet near her house and had time to ‘chat with’ and feed that pet,” Kawuma recalls. “In her garden was an old tree trunk, where she kept breadcrumbs and water for the birds ‘that will come.’ She always kept a fresh flower on her desk and also my desk, insisting that if I did not find a flower, I should put in fresh leaves. She even had a little flower vase in the car, which I had learnt to inspect at the start of every journey, otherwise we would have to stop for water and wild flowers anywhere on the road once she realised that they were missing.”
In 1994 Blenska, who was born 30 October 1911 in Poznan, retired from the centre, still a single woman, and returned to Poland. In later years she travelled to Uganda twice for visits. She personally knew her fellow countryman Pope John Paul II, who honoured her with the Order of St Silvester. She was awarded an honorary doctorate at Poznan University of Medical Sciences, and was made an honorary citizen of Uganda. In 2011 she was awarded the Order of the Rebirth of Poland, one of the Poland’s highest honours.
“I am grateful to God that I could live in Uganda and help the local people,” she said on her 100th birthday. “These were years of hard work, but happy years, during which I met with much warmth and gratitude.”
Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h640
Wanda Blenska (b 1911; q 1934 University of Poznan, Poland), died 27 November 2014.