Buluba, Uganda: The Amazing Story of Doctor Wanda Błeńska, the ‘Mother of Lepers’.

Doctor Wanda Błeńska is a Polish lay missionary, the foundress of the medical centre for the treatment of leprosy at Buluba, diocese of Jinja, Uganda. Recently her amazing story appeared in the international magazine  Miłujcie się! (Love One Another! )  . A process of beatification has recently been started by her home diocese of Poznań in Poland.

The life’s mission of Doctor Wanda Błeńska

It started with a dream

The birth of Wanda Błeńska did not predict a long, 103-year life. When she is born in Poznań in 1911 she weighs only 2.25 kg and there is talk that she will die quickly. Later it all gets better, although she will keep a delicate physique until the end of her life. As a child, she says repeatedly that she wants to become a missionary doctor in the future. She confirms this desire through her life choices and hard work and Błeńska considers this later as the basis for her attitude to life. “I always say to the youth: if you have good, clear ideas, cultivate them. Don’t let them fall asleep, don’t just reject them because they seem impossible or difficult to fulfill. You have to cultivate your dreams!” In 1928, the dreams of Wanda Błeńska come true and she begins to study medicine at the University of Poznań. She is not yet 17 years old and is the youngest student of the year.

During her studies she tries not to miss a single lecture and prepares for the exams in the cemetery, “because it is the only quiet place.” She mainly has girlfriends, but she is carefully surrounded by a group of older colleagues. And although there are many bachelors who can count on the sympathy of Wanda, none of them become her husband. The reason for that is just one: there is only one thing she cares about most, and that is her desire to work for the mission. This is her vocation of life.

The forge of missionaries

From the beginning of her studies Wanda Błeńska takes care not to allow her dream of becoming a missionary doctor to be relegated in favour of other tasks. Already in the first year she joins the Academic Mission Club. Together with other members she organizes meetings with missionaries, sends packets to Africa, reads relevant literature.

Over time, she gives lectures, speaks at symposia, and becomes the editor-in-chief of the first missiology magazine in Poland, “Annales Missiologicae.” The work for the Club is demanding, but gives Wandeczlca – as she was called at the time – joy and fulfillment. Later she will say: “Enthusiasm for work is learned at a young age, during school, during your studies. This enthusiasm is being collected and it must be cherished in such a way that it will last for a very long time. If you start working with this enthusiasm, then that happiness is a gift of God”.

The young Błeńska also participates in retreats, Holy Mass and adoration. She learns from the Club’s wise supervisors that missionary work is based on two pillars: work and prayer, and that both are equally important. This knowledge will later prove crucial for the effectiveness of her mission in Africa. In difficult times she does not forget that she is only an instrument in God’s hand that does her best, but the results of her work depend not only on her, but also on God.

The grain must die

The year 1934 marks a breakthrough in the life of Wanda Błeńska. She gets her medical degree and … does not leave for the missions. Why? She is a lay woman and single – such women were not then sent on mission to the ‘Dark Continent’ due to the difficult working conditions on the missions. She moves to Toruń , where her father and brother live (her mother died when Wanda was two years old) and she starts her internship at the local hospital. Interestingly, Wanda does not lose hope that one day the dark night will end and the sun of Africa will shine over her. She mainly looks for those hospital departments that can be useful for the missions. She also works in the laboratory and follows additional medical courses.

In 1939, history intervenes in the story of Wanda’s life. The Second World War then begins, during which young Błeńska is engaged in the activities of the Armia Krajowa (Underground Army during the German occupation). Under the pseudonyms “Grażyna” and “Szarotka”, she goes underground to heal the sick. Over time, she rises to the rank of second lieutenant and becomes the commander of the female division. On her name day, 23 June 1944, Błeńska is arrested and goes to prison for three months. Even then she does not give up, but prays to God. She’s brave. “There was a saying among us:” Your rear is not made of glass, it will not break! ” […] You must always look for joyful moments in difficult times”. In her cell, she organizes hymn singing and prayer sessions every day. After being released and after the end of the war, she works in medical institutions in Toruń and Gdańsk.

Wind in the sails

At the end of the 1940s, Wanda Błeńska ‘s desire to realize her dream of mission work really takes off. Paradoxically, this is due to the deteriorating health condition of her brother, who settled in Hannover after the war. Wanda, who rushes to his aid, illegally crosses the border (hidden in a coal storage on a ship!), which means she cannot return to communist Poland later. So she stays in the West and when her brother’s health improves, she takes courses in tropical medicine in Germany and England. Thanks to her experience and the people she meets there in 1950, her dream of missionary work in Africa can come true!

On 9 February 1950 , Błeńska writes in her diary : “I left London at 4 p.m. […] Apart from the physical fatigue, I have peace in my heart and a quiet, peaceful joy – I am actually very happy – even though I have nothing, I still have a lot”. The journey to the ‘Dark Continent’ lasts one month. On the ship she reads books about leprosy and she expects to be in Uganda for five years. She will stay there for 43 years.

 A difficult start

“The most difficult was the beginning, the first 15 years” – she tells people with characteristic candour in old age. She is alone in the Leprosy Treatment Center in Buluba (the village on Lake Victoria in the diocese of Jinja, where she eventually ends up) and there is an enormous amount of work. There are 22 thousand (!) patients for whom Błeńska is the only doctor in the area. Some she has to has to operate while she has no experience. In addition, there are primitive working conditions, a shortage of equipment, medicines and qualified personnel.

Wanda Błeńska, however, does not complain and is not discouraged. She knows that the Africa of the 50s is no place for silly young ladies.

From the beginning, she works without stopping. She sleeps five hours a day; in the morning she starts with Holy Mass. She works all day and takes a break before her meals and 20 minutes after lunch, in the evenings she does research or usually reads professional literature. Over time, the effect of her work is as follows: in addition to hundreds of healed patients, there are now also modern hospital buildings, a training center for doctors and nurses, and a qualified medical team, research for a leprosy vaccine. Doctor Błeńska’s actions are valued by, among others, medical institutions that name their institution after her, she gets her Ugandan citizenship and also receives papal awards. However, what wins the hearts of the Africans is her extraordinary attitude towards her patients.

 Doctor of mind and body

“If you want to be a good doctor, you must love your patients. That means: giving them time and care, training yourself. A lot of love has to be put into that … Yes, this is the most important thing – the attitude towards the patient. And it must be the same everywhere. Because people suffer everywhere and they recover faster if they trust the doctor, “says Wanda Błeńska. She has a heart for the sick. She greets them with a smile, shows them kindness, avoids being superior or indifferent. She applies unconventional methods. She touches the lepers without gloves to show that if there is no open wound, the usual rules of hygiene are sufficient not to get infected. She shows her patients photos from before and after treatment, so that they can give other patients the hope that many of the effects of leprosy can be completely healed.

Through her human approach to patients, Wanda Błeńska proclaims the Gospel about the dignity of the sick and the elderly, about whom and to whom Saint John Paul II will say: “They teach us that weakness is a creative part of the human life and that suffering can be accepted without sacrificing dignity. No disease, no hurt, no weakness can ever deprive you of your dignity as children of God, as brothers and sisters of Christ. ”

Doctor Błeńska not only heals with her heart. From the beginning, she ensures that she develops her expertise in the matter of leprosy. She tries to keep abreast of current knowledge, is aware of the professional literature and she wants to improve her qualifications. She performs laboratory tests in Spartan conditions. During her vacation in Poland, she visits hospital departments, learns to perform operations and how to manage a laboratory. She participates in international conferences, gives speeches, is a guest in centres for treatment of leprosy patients, including in India – in Puri with Father Marian Żelazek and Calcutta with St Mother Teresa. She does everything to heal the sick more effectively. Her actions inspire admiration, given the circumstances in which she works.

 Being a missionary

Doctor Błeńska is also remembered in Uganda as someone who combined her work with prayer. When she sees that a patient is dying or that his condition is serious, she asks staff and other patients to pray for him/her. She does not have to wait long for the reaction of the Africans – they are willing to participate in a spontaneous mass in the hospital.

Błeńska herself prays a lot, and she is aware of the responsibility of her work. While she washes her hands for surgery, she recites the Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The image of Our Lady of Częstochowa hangs in the operating room, and she entrusts Mary with the smooth running of the operation. She is not afraid to admit in public: “I always say: how many people I have healed with good treatment, and how many healings I have begged in prayer, I don’t know. I won’t know. ”

Years later, she says in her spiritual life she has gone the way of simply requesting God without waiting for His response, tol being with God and listening to Him. She also admits that it is useless to be a missionary without the faith that gives joy. “Those who go [on missions] must be happy. […] If you do not feel joy yourself, you cannot share it with others. Christian joy comes from faith, comes from Christ. ”

Faith in Christ also sheds light on the mystery of suffering which Dr. Błeńska deals with every day: “The cross of Christ is the most perfect explanation of the meaning of suffering and its value in life and in history. The cross is a call to answer love with love. We are not always able to find an answer in God’s plans to the question why our path in life is marked by suffering. Thanks to faith, however, we can be sure that this is a plan of love, in which a whole series of crosses, large and small, are intended to be united to the only Cross ”(Saint John Paul II).

 “A white girl” on the motorcycle

Błeńska’s mission would not have been so fruitful if she did not love Africa with all her heart: culture, dance, music and singing. She likes to participate in local customs and events. She lives modestly, but she doesn’t complain about inconveniences. She says: “The testimony of life and sharing the fate of those with whom you work are very important aspects of a mission.” She likes to ride a motorcycle, and soon this “white girl” is a sensation in the area. How she called out “Holy Raphael, I row and you save me!” when she collided in her kayak with an aggressive hippo in Lake Victoria, has gone down in local history.

With all her love for Africa, Błeńska remains loyal to Poland and its ideals. She does not forget the Polish language, she is interested in the news from her country, she reads literature. When she leaves Uganda, she leaves 25 boxes of books.

 Farewell to Africa

“This is the ambassador of the lay missionary” – John Paul II about Wanda Błeńska during his pilgrimage to Uganda in 1993. “The mother of lepers” is the example of a missionary doctor. Immersed in God she shared her faith, knowledge and heart with the people of Uganda for 43 years.

In 1994 she says goodbye at the age of 83. The last 20 years of her life – she dies in Poznań on November 27, 2014 – she devotes herself to preaching and committing herself to the promotion of mission. She also receives many prizes and awards for her work.

“I do not regard the fact that I loved my work so much among the lepers as personal merit. This is a gift, for which I am grateful to God. ”Her message? “You must trust in God, your Guardian Angel and whoever you have there. Later on it is enough to cherish your dreams and never accept ‘NO’ as an answer ”.

Maria Zboralska

Source: Love One Another















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