Lillian Cingo

Aboard the miracle train.

When Lillian Cingo retired from managing the neurosurgical unit at London’s Royal Free Hospital, she had every reason to put her feet up. 

Her back was wrecked from over three decades of nursing, during which she had reached the top of her profession, winning awards in both her native South Africa and in Britain. The award-winning nurse who took healthcare to rural South Africa tells Mary Lean about her journey.

Instead, she chose to spend 13 years living on a train, sleeping in a bed so narrow that she had to wake up every time she turned over. Millions of South Africans have reason to be grateful for that decision. The train was South Africa’s Phelophepa (‘good clean health’) train, which set out in 1994, with Lillian as its manager, to bring health services to remote rural communities. Since then Phelophepa (which now runs two trains) has reached over 5.5 million people with medical, dental and eye care and counselling. It has given 20,000 student doctors an insight into rural needs, and every year trains nearly 600 volunteer health workers, chosen by their communities.

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