Dr. Priscilla Busingye has a God-given passion to improve maternal health across Uganda, particularly in rural places where women often can’t get specialized care and dignified treatment.

For years, Busingye would wake up before 6 a.m. for morning devotions and mass before heading to work at the maternity ward. As a nun and a physician at a rural hospital, her work was both rewarding and rigorous. She would set alarms on her phone to remind herself to pray for strength and energy throughout the day.

Now, as the president of the Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Uganda, Busingye is training up the next generation of specialists in the Ugandan capital of Kampala.

When she learned last month she won a $500,000 medical missions prize, she saw God was finally answering her decades-long prayer to expand access to lasting maternal care. Busingye, a consecrated nun with the Catholic Banyatereza Sisters of Uganda, is the first woman and first African physician to win African Mission Healthcare’s annual L’Chaim Prize.

For nearly two decades, Busingye served at the Rwibaale Health Center, about four hours west of Kampala. She had been the hospital’s only OB-GYN specialist, as well as its medical director and administrator. Now, with the prize money, Busingye intends to transform the facility into a dedicated maternal care center.

Busingye’s goal is ambitious yet attainable: She wants to build a place where women have access to safe and affordable gynecological services, including surgical procedures for pregnancy, delivery and birth trauma, or injuries.

Women’s health is often neglected in national budgets for hospitals in Uganda, where the cost of giving birth in a hospital is too high for the rural poor. Some would have to pay up to a year’s worth of income to cover the cost of a C-section. As a result, most can’t or won’t seek out the medical help they need—or they wait until it’s too late.

Uganda still has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Studies show that 1 out of every 49 women will die from childbirth complications. Busingye hopes this health care center, slated to break ground in 2021, will be a place of refuge—where women from all levels of society are put first and where their bodies are treated with dignity and respect.

Busingye felt called to work with the poor and needy since she was a young girl. Taken under the wings of the Banyatereza Sisters of Uganda as a child, Busingye remembers being in sixth grade when she prayed before a statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and vowed to devote her life to serving God and ministering to the sick and the suffering.

Article continues below

Over the years, God shaped that calling by leading her to the medical field to help women who would not otherwise have the means to receive dignified clinical care. “That is a witness, that’s building the kingdom of God in people's hearts,” the 55-year-old said.

Citing Matthew 25:40, where Jesus said that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” Busingye says that behind the face of each woman she treats is another face—the holy face of God in the suffering of Christ as he hung on the cross.

Busingye’s project at Rwibaale is exactly what the leaders of African Mission Healthcare had in mind when they created the L’Chaim Initiative, which is named after the Hebrew toast “to life.”

Founder Mark Gerson, a Jewish philanthropist, and chief executive Jon Fielder, an evangelical physician, enlist top medical missionaries to select a winner for the prize each year. They set out to support projects that will have the greatest life-saving impact.

“When you look at the rates of maternal death, when you look at the rates of children lost to childbirth,” Gerson said, “the numbers are and continue to be staggering.”

“Uganda’s maternal and newborn health metrics are some of the worst in the world,” said Fielder. “The country as a whole is in the bottom 30—and it’s worse in southwestern Uganda, outside the capital of Kampala, where there’s fewer resources.”

Busingye sees women as the backbone of society and the economy in rural Uganda. They’re the ones who produce most of the food and transport it to sell in the markets. They oversee the children’s education, instilling values and imparting faith. And while they faithfully care for their families, these women often put their own needs last, if they can afford to think of themselves at all.

So when the woman of the family gets sick or dies, the whole household suffers. An investment in their health care needs not only serves the lives of individual women and babies—it also improves the livelihood of extended family members and raises the quality of life in her village, church, and community.

Mission hospitals like the Rwibaale Health Center, where Busingye will build the maternal center, hope to become a model for other medical facilities in the country. Over time, the team plans to train hundreds more young medical students and residents. Their vision is to elevate the level of health care, and specifically maternal care, across the continent.

Article continues below

African Mission Healthcare was founded in 2010 in response to the growing lack of funding and resources being funneled toward medical missions, especially in Africa—where 1 in 3 hospitals is said to have been founded by a Christian ministry or missions organization.

As the church landscape shifted in the US, many overseas missions hospitals saw their financial support depleted. Gerson aims to help build up sustainable institutions by investing in direct doctor-to-patient clinical care as well as medical training and infrastructure.

African Mission Healthcare had already been partnering with Busingye and her order for nearly a decade before she applied for the L’Chaim prize. The organization has funded and facilitated the nursing training of nearly 50 nuns in the region, several of whom have since gone on to medical school to become doctors or specialists, or were equipped to train other nurses.

Many of these women will continue to work alongside Busingye, while some were sent to serve at mission hospitals in other rural areas.

“From the beginning, you could just see her pure heart and her desire to serve,” Fielder, who served in medical missions in Africa, said of Busingye. “We knew that she and her group of nuns would be a really great partner.”

Even with the partnership and financial backing, Busingye knows that her prayer—to build one of the first maternal health care centers of its kind—will be a monumental endeavor.

“There are times I have shed tears, feeling the heaviness of what is coming ahead,” Busingye says. “But whenever I feel like that, I say no—forgive me, Lord. It's not my effort, I don't want it to be me. Please just take it, it’s your award.”