CANCER SURVIVOR SPOT LIGHT: MS GERTRUDE MWANGALA AKAPELWA

As you can imagine at the Cancer Diseases Hospital, everyday is a busy day. Even on days that the corridors are not alight with activity, the things that make treatment of cancer patients happen are working at full throttle behind the scenes. To keep things on schedule you need to have a timetable that you respect with all your might and ignore puppy eyes from family as to why you are working late or working weekends, so the day one of my senior colleagues pulled me out of my routine because he wanted us to review a patient together in the VIP section of the hospital I could see my timelines literally crumble and I waved goodbye to having supper with my family that day. However, I also had a good feeling about this consult and felt it in my bones I was about to meet a remarkable person.

As we walked into the room and I was introduced to our patient Ms Gertrude Mwangala Akapelwa and one of the first things she pointed out was she expected to see the same doctor at each visit. I smiled inwardly knowing that’s impossible given the staffing level, but none the less my senior colleague soothed and reassured her that he had ‘downloaded’ all his knowledge into my brain so she shouldn’t mind too much if he was unavailable. As cancer doctors we meet people at the most vulnerable moment in their lives but what I could see that day was a woman in-charge of her own affairs and I mused why my colleague had chosen me to be his alternate on her case. Read on if you want to know, it was God’s plan.

So who is Ms Gertrude Mwangala Akapelwa or Madam Akapelwa as I fondly refer to her (there is just something about her demeanour that makes you want to courtesy and say ‘madam’ while bowing respectfully)? Ms Akapelwa, the first woman founder and vice-chancellor of a university in Zambia, is an achiever and a recipient of several excellence awards. Her Honour Inonge Wina, the Republican Vice President, at the 2nd Graduation Ceremony of a university Madam Akapelwa founded referred to her as awoman of courage, vision and stamina. A role model.

Born on 6 August 1948 to Mr. Akapelwa Simataa and Mrs. Muyunda Etambuyu Kawana, in Akapelwa village of Sesheke District in the Western Province, the nouns Madam Akapelwa chooses to throw out are cancer survivor, widow, mother of two adult sons, and grandmother to six grandchildren. She has an UNZA Bachelor of Science majoring in Mathematics with Education; a Harvard Masters Degree in Public Administration (Management and Public Policy) and now short of her 70thbirthday in August is waiting to defend her PhD thesis in Education from the University of Liverpool in the UK. Other than being a well-established entrepreneur (as evidenced by ownership of La Résidence Executive Guest House in Livingstone) she is also founder of Victoria Falls University of Technology, a Mandela Washington Fellows Program mentor and board member of Zambia Railways Limited. She previously served as Chairperson of Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority (ZICTA) and as a board member of the Zambia National Commercial Bank (ZANACO). Her professional career was no less illustrious with her having started as a secondary school teacher of Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry at Kabulonga Girls Secondary School then moving onto IBM in Zambia as a systems engineer from 1973 to 1981. Later she worked at the Africa Development Bank for a total of 23 years in different capacities as an international civil servant in Ivory Coast and Tunisia. With such a portfolio come awards including an IBM Systems Engineering Professional Excellence Award in 1976; the Zambia Association of University Women (ZAUW), for being the Pioneer Female Computer Scientist, on the 8th March 2016; the Zambia Society for Public Administrators, the John Mwanakatwe Distinguished Award, on 2 December 2016 in recognition of her contribution to the promotion of public service excellency in higher education.

At this point some may be wondering where the cancer story fits in. Well firstly Madam Akapelwa lost both her parents to cancer, her father to prostate and her mother to pancreatic cancer. Cancer knows no race, gender, age or even accomplishments. Shortly after her having been given the John Mwanakatwe Distinguished Award in December the previous year, in February 2017 she was found with a breast lump for a second time (the first had been in 2008 and it was non cancerous). She went to India where she underwent most of her treatment and continues to attend reviews. In the abundance of all this privilege of being able to go abroad when dissatisfied with the level of service in country, she had always indicated she wanted to give back to other Zambians. In fact her first suggestion to me, which made me realise her conviction, was that she could sponsor me to get an experience of how the well established commercial/private business driven medical system she had experienced in India works and come and try and implement it in our government funded no-pay-from-majority-of-clients system so that she may put a smile on her fellow patients’ faces. As magnanimous and attractive that sounded (especially on a busy day when I was in dire need of a vacation!), I declined as I knew her resources would be better spent helping in a way that could be more impactful and realistic for the patients in the environment we live in whose biggest desire is to be touched by a doctor at least once. I teased her saying didn’t she know that my day to day mentors were from the best cancer centres in the world and I was well trained in Europe and South Africa as well as already a recipient of international awards. Egos aside we started brainstorming about solutions that could benefit vulnerable Zambian cancer patients instantaneously from her generosity and at the same time complement the huge efforts and resources our current government is putting into our health system in a meaningful way.

Herein lies why Madam Akapelwa is one of the special ones. Firstly she is amazingly humble and ridiculously generous – giving not only money but also herself in her entirety. She started the project to help other patients duringa time she was still going through treatment and suffering some serious side effects. As one of her physicians I was actually worried of the strain of the effort on her well-being but she had none of it, saying patients were waiting to be helped.

As you may have come to know through my features cancer treatment is not a touch and go. It involves months of treatment staggered in a way that wears down the body but leaves just enough reserve to help patients get to the finish line. Financial toxicity is also a reality and although treatment is free for every Zambian, they must find their way to the hospital for each treatment. Our fantastic social work department do have some funds that they diligently disburse but it’s not hard to see that the demand far outweighs the supply. Using these facts the Gertrude Mwangala Akapelwa (GMA) Rural Cancer Patients Transport Fund was formed through the hard work and persistence of Madam Akapelwa. She decided to start the fund using her own resources, sharing what she has so that the next ordinary Zambian without her privilege can have a fair chance to access treatment.

In her own words she believed that God was trying to show her something through her suffering from cancer. She clings to her faith quoting scripture, John 16:33 “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye may have peace. In this world ye have tribulation: but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

She hopes that with additional funding from well-wishers and funding agencies the facility will be expanded even to those within the cities. She believes that with more efforts from the medical personnel as well as ordinary Zambians like herself, hope can be given to those suffering from cancer and contribute to their quick recovery. With the establishment of GMA Rural Cancer Patients Transport Fund, which has already started helping patients, she discovered what God wanted to show her, which was to give hope by extending her hand to the vulnerable cancer patients for their survival.

It is not the first charity she operates though, as she helps feed vulnerable elderly people in rural areas in Zambia.It is indeed a blessing to know such a phenomenal Zambian woman and support her cause. Individual help is forever welcome but a lasting impact is always made through an organised force and that is exactly what Madam Akapelwa has established for transportation of cancer patients. Please support her.

GMA Rural Cancer Patients Transport Fund volunteers can be contacted at cell numbers (+26) 0967 967 012; 0974 170 366 and 0956 882 128 and physically found at the Elunda building, Round 2, 2ndFloor, Addis Ababa Roundabout, Corner of Chikwa Rd and Los Angeles Blvd, Rhodes Park, Lusaka. Email address is gmacancerfund@gmail.com

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