Even as a little girl she dreamed of one day being a doctor and later admired the organisation Doctors without Borders. Now, med student Markéta Malecová is a few months away from completing her studies and becoming a doctor herself. As a student she has already made a big difference, helping children at Whisper's Magical Children's Hospital and Maternity in Jinja, Uganda. Malecova first travelled to Uganda in East-Central Africa in 2018 and a year later founded a Whisper's charity fund branch in the Czech Republic to boost support for the hospital, for which she later received the Laskavec 2020 award (the hospital is called "whisper" because the voices and suffering of the smallest patients are so rarely heard). Many of the children treated at Whisper's in the past suffered from severe malnutrition – and the economic impact of the pandemic only made matters worse.
Covid also made it impossible for Malecová to return to Africa at the moment and other commitments such as completing her studies and volunteering at the University Hospital in Prague were important. There is no doubt that for med students the last year was intense and unlike anything they had experienced before.
Before we get into the details, I have to ask: you are so active in so many areas, where do you find the time?
I guess I am involved in a lot of things but it’s doable. During the pandemic there were many moments when things were really hectic. When I would be helping in the hospital during the day, then catching up on lectures I’d missed in the evening, all the while putting together a crisis plan with colleagues for the hospital in Uganda. I must admit it was quite a lot to take on. Otherwise, I think it’s manageable as long as you have proper time managment. If you want something badly enough, there’s always a way to achieve your goal.
Med students were in a unique situation: most other people stayed at home and worked from there, had a bit of room for personal development and for their families, but we were at the forefront, requested or required to help in hospitals at the same time continuing in our studies. Things also got worse at Whisper's in Uganda in terms of organisational and financial problems. In effect, it was a kind of stress test.
What inspired you to travel to Uganda for the first time in 2018?
As far as I can remember, UNICEF documentaries - about malnourished children waiting for help which didn’t always arrive - always made an impression on me. I think that was the first impulse for me. Inequality, injustice and unfairness, whether on a personal or on a global scale, bother me: why should a child in Africa face much tougher starting conditions in life than a child in Europe? When I heard about Whisper's, I exchange da couple emails with founder Veronika Cejpoková and I ended up buying plane tickets and departed for Uganda two months later.
You have helped a total of five times at the Magical Hospital: how hard was it to find time to go?
Luckily, I was always able to find some time between my studies and other responsibilities: most often I would go there over the summer holidays or during exam periods after I completed my exams. Thanks to permanent registration with the Embassy of Uganda in Prague – and because I got all compulsory and recommended vaccinations – I have an advantage when applying for a visa. Whenever there is an opportunity to go, I can leave almost immediately. The only thing stopping me now is the pandemic.
At the same time, I felt useful and needed at the Covid testing centre at Bulovka University Hospital. Also, the Whisper charity fund here takes quite a lot of time and work: although the lockdown in Uganda ended in May of 2020, the impact of the economic slowdown is going to affect us for a long, long time. We saw a fourfold rise in the number of malnourished patients because of the economic downturn. And, last but not least, I need to finish my studies. As soon as it will be possible, I will go back.
Now that you are almost done, do you know what area you want to specialise in?
Since the third year I got really interested in the field of gynaecology and that hasn’t changed (laughs). I want to, understandably, remain involved in humanitarian aid, and it would be great if I could do both at the same time. But who knows how things will turn out: I am not making any final decisions yet. I am also interested in surgery, which is a field often more common to men, but we’ll see.
Speaking of your charity: are Czechs generous when it comes to giving to an “unknown” hospital “somewhere” in Africa?
I experienced generosity as well as rejection. There are a lot of people who are interested. They only need to work through the information and be assured they are giving to a project which makes a long-term difference. Once they know, many of them choose to supoort us. Then there is a different group of people with a totally different point-of-view: Help Africa? No way. And there’s really nothing you can do to change their minds.
At the charity fund, I am responsible for people who want to help. I take care of fundraising, which includes bringing together financial resources but also PR and promotion. I coordinate volunteers from all walks of life who would like to volunteer in Uganda. People who join the program and help in Uganda are not only doctors or med students, far from it. I am very happy that interest has not faded and that people really want to help. All you need is English and a desire to help.
Last year your charity caught the attention of many when you were awarded the Laskavec prize recognising good deeds and civic responsibility, given by the Karel Janeček Fund. What was your reaction?
When they called to tell me that I had been nominated I was shocked. I was really honoured to be chosen and happy that someone had noticed my work. What I’m doing in the Czech Republic is almost invisible compared to the work of hospitals, so I am glad it got attention. I donated the financial prize to our hospital where it was used to buy a new phototherapy machine in the maternity ward.
What do you do when you need to get away from things, to relax a bit? Is it true you were once on the Baník Most basketball team? A center?
(laughs) That’s true. I used to play basketball and was on a bunch of different teams. When I got older I even coached a girls’ team for a while in Litoměřice. Nowadays, I like to take walks in nature, which are perfect for recharging your batteries. I still do a lot of sports and in the winter you’ll most often find me in the mountains, cross-country skiing.
Whisper’s Magical Children’s Hospital and Maternity in Uganda was founded by Veronika Cejpoková in 2009. At the time, there were just 12 physicians per 100,000 people in Uganda. The hospital has 60 available beds but necessity showed that 100 kids could get rest on them if needed. The hospital treats around 1,500 children a month. Most need only ambulatory care. The personnel at the hospital count five doctors, a dozen nurses, as well as other staff. Patients’ families are required to make only a symbolic donation at the start of their child’s treatment - and in some cases not at all.
The hospital is a non-profit organisation which exists largely thanks to donations from Great Britain where Whisper's has its official headquarters. Besides support from the Czech Republic, the NGO also receives funding from donors in the United States.
When it was founded, Whisper’s Magical Children’s Hospital treated mainly malnourished children, often completely abandoned. The photos below show med student Markéta Malecová working at the facility.
The day we met, Markéta wore a necklace that she cherishes from Uganda which she received as a souvenir. Locals often brought gifts as thanks for treatment at the Magical Hospital. Once, she got a handmade dress and even… a live hen, she says.
|Med student Markéta Malecová|
Markéta Malecová comes from Litomeřice, in the Ústí nad Labem region northwest of Prague. She is in her sixth year at the Third Faculty of Medicine at Charles University. Since 2018, she has travelled to Africa five times to help take care of children at a local hospital. In 2019, she founded a charity in the Czech Republic to support the facility and its work. She also volunteers in the Czech Republic and, like many of her fellow med students, has helped at a university hospital during the Covid-19 pandemic.