President Weah, Please Answer Phebe Hospital’s SOS Call and Save Our Rural People

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We consider this Editorial a very serious one, because it is intended to make a direct and urgent appeal to President George Weah to come to Phebe Hospital’s rescue, in the same way President William R. Tolbert saved this hospital in 1973.

What is at stake is yet another very serious crisis at one of the nation’s leading medical and health institutions—Phebe Hospital in Suacoco, Bong County.  Why is Phebe so  critical?  Because it serves millions of rural Liberians; and also travelers through Liberia’s vast interior that may fall sick en route or become victims of terrible accidents along the highways leading through Bong County, on to Lofa, Nimba, Grand Gedeh and beyond.

Why do we say that history is about to repeat itself?  Because the crisis at Phebe today is identical to that which befell Phebe in 1973, just after Dr. Walter Gwenigale returned home from his highly successful medical studies in Puerto Rico and Los Angeles, California, United States of America.

The alarming story from our Bong County Correspondent Marcus Malayea, published on the back page of yesterday’s Daily Observer, told us that Phebe is probably the nation’s oldest hospital—97 years.  It was started by American Lutherans in Harrisburg, Montserrado County around 1921 when they opened their first Liberian mission in this part of Montserrado County, on the Right Bank of the St. Paul River.  Attached to the hospital was a School of Nursing.  There in Harrisburg the Lutherans also planted the E.V. Day Girls School.  The Lutherans put their male students school across the river in Millsburg, and called it the Muelenberg Boys School.

Nearly a half century later the Lutherans, in collaboration with the Episcopal and Methodist Churches, relocated Phebe to Suacoco, in the then Central Province which in 1964 became Bong County.  It was an ultra-modern medical facility in the heart of rural Liberia, equipped with a modern operating room and X-ray department, electricity and running water.  A little later, Phebe joined with Cuttington College and Divinity School (now Cuttington University) to open the nation’s first degree-granting School of Nursing.

But immediately upon Dr. Gwenigale’s return from his medical studies, the Lutheran missionaries at Phebe told him they were closing Phebe and turning it into a health center.  They said there was no money to continue running the hospital, because American Lutherans were now focusing on saving “the heathen at home, rather than the heathen abroad.”

Dr. Gwenigale, who had returned with his Puerto Rican wife Carmen, a well-trained radiologist and their year-old  first son, Walter, Jr., did not panic at this alarming revelation.  The doctor, also a surgeon, made a fast move.  He drove to Monrovia one morning and found his Cuttington classmate, now a journalist, at the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism and told him the terrible news about Phebe.  Walter Gwenigale, along with his Lutheran Training Institute classmate Wilton Sankawulo, had graduated in 1959, just as Kenneth Y. Best had graduated from the Booker Washington Institute that same year and the three of them, among many others from all over Liberia, met at Cuttington as freshmen in February 1960.  In mid-1961 the Lutherans sent Walter to Puerto Rico for medical studies.  He presented to his classmate the crisis he faced immediately on his return—Phebe, the hospital he had returned home well prepared to serve, was closing down.

“So what do you want me to do?” asked  KYB.

“I want you to write about it to see if we can stop Phebe from closing.”

That same weekend Mr. Best traveled to Phebe in Suacoco, interviewed the Lutherans in charge of Phebe, who confirmed the imminent closure, met the Hospital Board that was meeting that Saturday morning, then toured the entire facility, including all the infrastructure. The result was two major stories the following week—on Tuesday and Thursday, published in the Liberian Star, a daily, and the bi-weekly Liberian Age. 

On seeing the stories, President William R. Tolbert summoned his Health Minister, Counselor Oliver Bright, who confirmed to him Phebe’s imminent closure, because the Lutherans said they had no more money to keep the hospital open. “How much does it cost to run Phebe annually,” President Tolbert enquired.

“US$400,000, Mr. President, according to Mr. Best,” Minister Bright replied.

President Tolbert immediately dictated a letter to his younger brother, Finance Minister Steve Tolbert, directing him to provide US$400,000 annually to keep Phebe Hospital open.

Dr. Gwenigale took over Phebe immediately and ran it successfully for over 30 years, even through the war years.  It was this enviable legacy that led President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to appoint him her Health Minister for most of her tenure.

We appeal to President George Weah to repeat history by doing for Phebe what President Tolbert did for this critical medical institution on which millions of our rural people as well as travelers up country depend for their health, medical and even emergency needs.

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