How Glenn Close’s father became Mobutu’s personal doctor

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How Glenn Close’s father became Mobutu’s personal doctor

Dr Close, I presume

Meanwhile, he looked for some way of putting his surgical skills to good use. He had heard that almost all the Belgian doctors had also fled the chaos, and there were no Congolese doctors because none had been trained by the colonial master, Belgium.  Darting through the besieged streets of Leopoldville as the sounds of distant gunfire rocked the largely deserted city, Dr Close managed to push his way through an unruly mob and into the Hôpital des Congolais, the city’s largest hospital.  

During that first day, Bill Close was given a crash course in developing and fixing film for x-rays by the long suffering Belgian doctor Marcel Pirquin. Close, Pirquin and other hospital staff took care of the numerous victims and perpetrators of the violence, Congolese and Belgian alike.

In the weeks that followed, Dr Close went from taking x-rays to making plaster casts for fractures and eventually to surgery. However, the hospital conditions were appalling. There was no blood in the blood bank. Used gauze pads were retrieved from the bins, washed and re-used. There was no laboratory to speak of.

Yet, Bill Close quickly became a master at surgical improvisation. He concocted his own gas-oxygen-ether anaesthesia and taught Makila, the floor sweeper, to push on the balloon in rhythm with his own breathing to administer the anaesthesia. He would use a brace and a drill bit from a carpentry shop to make a burr hole in a small boy’s skull to relieve the pressure on his brain – “primitive craniotomy,” he called it. Close and the staff averaged 350 operations a month. Later, when Dr Pirquin escorted a wounded Belgian police commissioner back to Europe, Close, for a while, found himself the only surgeon at the hospital.

But the post-independence tensions would play themselves out at the Hôpital des Congolais. Among the other hospital staff he met during that first day was La Mere Marie-Germaine, the Belgian nun who was in charge of the operating rooms. She later became an air hostess for Sabena Airlines.

“She was a tyrant,” Bill Close joked about her in our 2007 interview. “If she had been in charge of the Congolese army, there wouldn’t have been a mutiny. But she was a hell of a good nurse and a good assistant.”

There was also Samuel, a Congolese who he remembers as a highly skilled surgical assistant. However, the relationship between Sister Germaine and Samuel was bitter and aptly reflected the post-
independence tensions between the Congolese and the remaining Belgians.

“The atmosphere in the operating room was poisonous. The surgeon and his nurse, a Belgian nun, were tight-lipped and bitter; the Congolese aides were insolent and flaunted their new independence from white authority. Everyone was frightened,” Bill Close wrote in ‘Beyond the Storm’.      

During these turbulent days, Close and the surgical staff were conducting many of their operations at gunpoint. Once, a Congolese soldier who had been shot in the thigh by a Belgian paratrooper was stretchered into the operating room by three fellow soldiers dressed in full combat gear. When Close tried to get more catgut from an adjacent room, two of the soldiers blocked his way, one declaring: “You can’t leave. If you don’t save our man, I’ll kill you.”

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