By: Niamh Scallan
August 17, 2012
A Toronto doctor who spent nearly two decades heading a Salvation Army-run hospital in Zimbabwe is said to be en route back to Canada, after his ouster reportedly sparked violent protest in the impoverished rural community.
Dr. Paul Thistle, a Scarborough native who trained at the University of Toronto, told his supporters via email on Aug. 6 that the Salvation Army had ordered him to leave his post as chief medical officer and only full-time doctor at the 144-bed Howard Hospital (which serves 270,000 people in the rural Chiweshe region) as of Sept. 1.
“We leave with mixed emotions,” the Salvation Army officer wrote in an email obtained by the Peterborough Examiner earlier this month. “Howard Hospital is on the verge of collapse. Our hearts are weeping for the people of Chiweshe.”
But on Friday, a day after a public protest over Thistle’s removal reportedly turned violent and led to at least a dozen arrests, the physician received a 48-hour notice to return to Canada.
“His head is probably just spinning,” said Warren Viegas of Toronto, a close friend of Thistle’s who spoke to him by phone after he received the notice Friday.
Viegas said the doctor, who has two boys with wife Pedrinah, a Zimbabwean nurse who also worked at Howard Hospital, had not planned to leave his post in the immediate future.
“The impression I get from him is that he would rather continue to serve at the hospital there,” added Stuart Isherwood, 42, Thistle’s childhood friend from Scarborough.
Andrew Burditt, spokesperson for Salvation Army in Canada, said Friday afternoon that Thistle was “en route” home on the organization’s orders. While he could not elaborate on the reasons for Thistle’s removal, Burditt said all Salvation Army officers are subject to transfers.
Some of Thistle’s supporters and friends, however, have pointed to other forces at play in the politically unstable country that may have contributed to the Salvation Army’s decision to transfer the doctor.
According to local media reports, Thistle was removed after he raised concerns that money and supplies he had gathered for the facility never made it from the organization’s Zimbabwe office to Howard Hospital.
“There are some in Zimbabwe who feel he has been too vocal or too critical and now are trying to move (him) out,” said Isherwood.
Whatever the reason, news he was leaving sparked outrage and concern among local people reliant on his care and longtime supporters of the doctor’s 17-year mission to improve healthcare in the region.
“We’re really deeply disturbed and saddened by what’s happening over there with Dr. Thistle,” said Robyn Segall, marketing manager of Ve’ahavta, a non-profit Jewish humanitarian and relief committee that has provided both volunteers and supplies to Howard Hospital since 1998. “Mostly, we’re concerned that the community is going to be ignored.”
The Salvation Army has not appointed Thistle to a new post. The organization has also yet to find a new chief medical officer for the Zimbabwe hospital.
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