Dr. Harry Chen and his wife Anne Lezak are preparing for the adventure of a lifetime: living in Uganda for a year, helping to develop health care institutions in the southwestern city of Mbarara.
Chen is a former state representative, state health commissioner, and acting human services secretary who left state government in March; Lezak is a consultant in nonprofit management and grant writing who most recently worked at Mercy Connections, a Burlington nonprofit.
"This is a transition point for me," Chen explains. "It was a time to take stock and decide what you want your next adventure to be. Anne and I have always talked about spending time overseas. It's a perfect time to do it."
Lezak is participating in a program called Peace Corps Response. "It's for seasoned — which I take to mean 'old' — people," she says. She will be helping to establish a new nonprofit called the Beehive Hospice. "It's a mobile hospice, so they don't have beds of their own," she says. "There's a lot of AIDS patients as well as a lot of people with cancer."
Uganda is a very religious country, notorious for its anti-gay politics. When she was choosing an assignment, Lezak made it clear she had her limits. "I said from the start that there were two areas that might be difficult," she says. "One was working for someplace that's openly religious. And if it was a place that wasn't able to treat gay people with respect, I wouldn't work there either."
Beehive, she says, is "faith-based, but is very open and accepting, and they serve people with AIDS."
Chen's placement involves three separate programs: Seed Global Health, a Boston-based nonprofit, the Peace Corps, and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the global assistance program created by President George W. Bush.
"I'll be at the Mbarara University of Science and Technology," Chen says. "I will be creating a new emergency medicine residency program there. In America there are many residency training programs for emergency physicians; in Africa there are only a handful. And there are none in Uganda."
Chen acknowledges that Uganda's ultraconservative culture "will affect my work," but he adds: "An important concept is, in my mind, something called cultural humility, which is trying to fit in as best you can with the culture. It would be inappropriate for me to be a trailblazer in terms of gay rights in Uganda. I'll still provide the care. If they're gay or straight, I'll try to see that they get the best care possible."
After getting their assignments, Lezak and Chen did what anyone else would do: they googled Mbarara to learn about the place they'll be spending a full year. It's a fast-growing metropolis in a mostly agricultural region of Uganda, and to be honest, does not appear to be a particularly memorable city. "One guidebook said, the only reason you would stop in Mbarara is that you're on your way someplace else," Lezak says. "However, it's not that far from amazing places that we're really excited to visit. One of the places I'm excited about is the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest," a national park known as a habitat for gorillas and great apes.
Both Chen and Lezak are excited about the opportunity to create institutions that will have a lasting impact on the people of Mbarara. "If I can come away from this year and know that I've created a program to train doctors in emergency medicine to take care of patients and train the next set of doctors, to me, that's priceless," Chen says.
The couple are holding a farewell party Wednesday evening. In fact, Lezak took a few minutes away from making guacamole to talk about their adventure. Trouble is, they're not actually going away just yet. Chen's assignment is on hold, thanks to — you guessed it — uncertainties about federal funding.
"I have to imagine there's a bit of chaos in Washington," Chen says. "[The funding for PEPFAR] is stalled. I've had some conversations with [Vermont Sen. Patrick] Leahy's office to try to get this moving."
The clock is ticking. "They're expecting us for the beginning of the academic year," says Chen. "We can't get there in mid-September because it's more disruptive to them."
Chen and Lezak are hoping to leave sometime in August, but there's a chance they'll have to call the whole thing off.
"There's always that chance," Chen acknowledges. "It would be silly of me not to think about plan B, which I don't have right now."
In the meantime, they'll throw a nice party and hope it nudges the chaos in a positive direction.