How Uganda’s Only Female Internist-Intensivist Carved a Niche in a Male Dominated Field

As a medical student, Jane Nakibuuka never imagined she would ever end up in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) as a full-time practitioner.

She says she knew she would handle a mix of patients as a doctor and a critically ill patient once in a while but not a full-time career in caring for very sick and often hopeless patients. Today, grief management and holding tough conversations with relatives of broken and financially strained caregivers have become part of the 50-year-old’s daily to-do list.

It took a Master’s Degree in Internal Medicine and later a super speciality in critical care medicine for Nakibuuka to become the country’s first Internist-Intensivist. Attaining this took her 12 study years.

Nakibuuka now heads the Mulago Specialized National Referral Hospital ICU, the first woman in that position at the country’s biggest hospital. She says this to have been a whole new learning experience especially since she was at the helm during the COVID-19 pandemic when the world was hit by shortages of such services as they tried to battle a novel virus, where everything was learnt as they happened.

Nakibuuka reveals seeing a lot of people come in a terrible state but never got to know how or where they ended shortly after dispensing the initial care. Some cases would stick in her mind and she often kept wondering whether they survived and in what state they were, if they did.

She not only set up the country’s first COVID-19 dedicated ICU but Nakibuuka takes our reporter back to 2021 when she had to make tough choices as dozens of very sick patients with COVID-19 scrambled for the scarce ICU services.

“Everyone was critically sick, everyone needed their lungs to be helped. It was tough saying this patient needs ICU more than this one. The ICU was full”, she recounts.

The doctor recalls starting another duty immediately after she ended it as a colleague on the shift had suddenly developed symptoms consistent with the acute viral respiratory disease. While they were being helped by intensive care nurses and anesthesiologists that the government had quickly trained, she says the human resource was too small and leaving to take a rest meant sacrificing your patients.

Nakibuuka worked for two days without a step out of the ICU.

Currently, while COVID-19 cases have gone extremely low, Nakibuuka says the number of Internist-Intensivists throughout the country is still below the recommended ratios.

However, working with minimums, on big patient numbers has not deterred Nakibuuka from offering her best. In fact, she reveals meeting people who have asked her how she has managed to remain in a male-dominated, mentally draining environment with the kind of patients she cares for. The mother of three says her drive has always been a passion.  

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