Liberi: Dr. Gwenigale 'Was A Man of Principle'

Dr. Walter T. Gwenigale.   

...  Says MOH; as several health professionals pay their last respects

Dr. Walter T. Gwenigale, the former Minister of Health who helped reform Liberia's health system during the aftermath of the country's 14-year civil war, has been remembered as a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the country's health sector.

Dr. Gwenigale, who died at the John F. Kennedy Medical Center at the age of 87 after a brief illness, served as Minister of Health during the administration of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. He was a member of the World Health Organization's Executive Board and led the charge for the next Director General to be an African, as a board member of the Roll Back Malaria campaign.

As minister, he championed the expansion of the health system across the country and pushed for more donor support as well as its independence, and led the Sirleaf administration's fight against the Ebola disease. However, his no-nonsense work ethic made him a controversial figure with the health workers association. 

“There was no one better to lead the Ministry and rehabilitate the health sector following the Liberia civil war than  Dr. Gwenigale,” said an excerpt of a tribute from authorities of the Ministry of Health. “He always worked in the country's best interests, and the health-care systems he helped create continue to represent the ideals he promoted."

Dr. Gwenigale, whose body yesterday was laid in state at the Ministry of Health from 10 a.m. to noon, was remembered by colleagues and others as a man of integrity and extraordinary intellect, whose vision was to see an expanded healthcare system across the country.

The Ministry noted that Dr. Gwenigale was committed to equity, and fought to ensure that the institution’s leadership reflects the geographical and economic diversity of the constituent regions. 

“His passion and strategic advocacy contributed to the improved representation we see today in the health sector. Dr. Gwenigale was a visionary leader with ambitious goals for the country,” the Ministry's tribute said.

It added that he will also be missed by colleagues at the Ministry of Health, his students who continue to serve across Liberia, and perhaps most of all, his patients, adding “Countless lives across Liberia have been touched by his good works, and he leaves a tremendous legacy behind.”

Dr. Gwenigale had an enviable medical career, having served as a practicing surgeon for more than 30 years, including during the civil war. He was Bong County health officer, director of Phebe Hospital, and president of the Christian Health Association of Liberia.  Upon his retirement from public service in 2015, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf described him as “a symbolic icon with a commitment and duty to public service that we all must endeavor to emulate in upholding the public trust that has been bestowed upon us as a government”.

She further described him as “a masterful manifestation of humbled and exemplary life that comes on par with nothing short of unassuming excellence, adding: “Dr. Gwenigale will be remembered as one of my best-serving Cabinet Ministers that I could count on for sound judgment and profoundly good advice.”

After graduating from medical school in Puerto Rico, he preferred to work at Phebe hospital where he became medical director instead of working in Monrovia. While there, he held the feet of President Tolbert to the fire until the government put money in the budget of Phoebe so that the hospital would continue to operate. 

Being a brilliant visionary, he built that hospital into a regional referral hospital, working with Cuttington College, he upgraded the nursing school to train graduate nurses that went out to serve hospitals in the country.  His wife Carmen began to train some of the first anesthesiologists in the country. During the war, he stayed at Phebe to serve the people.  He was one of several Liberian doctors who remained in-country to serve the people during the worst times.

At the Ministry of Health, he took the rare decision to contract NGOs and county health services in order to get basic health services nearer to the people. In the Ministry itself, he emphasized the training of staff so that Liberians would be able to carry out their duties efficiently. 

When he established the Office of Financial Management, he hired Price Waterhouse, an international accounting firm, not just to bring in their accountants but to set up systems and train the Ministry's staff.

Also paying tribute was Dr. Bernice Dahn, Dr. Gwenigale's immediate successor. Dr. Dahn described him as a man of integrity; and that he taught her "not to follow the political trend to keep your job."

“The reason humans establish systems is so that they can live after them. He gave people the freedom to work and was always involved in educating health professionals and other employees,” Dr. Dahn said.  “I believe we can carry his vision as he stood against corruption and more. He helped to build the financial system that we all have faith in, and that alone made me bold because when I was leading as the Minister here, I was not afraid to tell people to come and audit us.

 "Audit is a system of strengthening activity because fraud is a bad product, so when an audit is done, the auditor gives you recommendations to help you strengthen the system, and when there is a fraud, you take appropriate actions, and that's how people fight corruption, and that's what Dr. Gwenigale stood for throughout his life,” Dr. Dahn added.

Meanwhile, Norwu Howard, the Deputy Health Minister for Administration, described the late Dr. Gwenigale as a hero in Liberia's health sector who was not afraid to make difficult decisions and was adamant about his fight for valuable resources just to improve Liberia's health sector. 

“His life was dedicated to helping, healing and leadership. “He taught me how to care about patients. I am a better health practitioner today because of him. As we mourn his loss, we need to endeavor to exemplify all his very good examples during his service to our country.”  

Last Mile Health, Partners In Health, USAID, UN Bodies, World Bank, EU, US CDC, Irish Aid, Professional Health Institutions, Liberia College of Physicians and Surgeons, Pharmacy Board, Liberia Board of Nursing and Midwifery, Liberia Medical Dental Council, and others have also expressed tribute. 

Dr. Gwenigale is survived by his widow of nearly 52 years, Carmen, of Puerto Rico, USA, two sons, Walter Jr, Cllr. Raymond (Stacey) and Carmen (Mike) Ogoli; five grandchildren and Michael Gwenigale, Jr, his brother's son, who he reared.