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In the News Archive

Kenyan Village Example for U.S. Medicine

  • August 20, 2008
  • Number of views: 2948
By Mary Jo Feldstein, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 20, 2008
The people of Lwala, Kenya, know how to raise a doctor. As a young man, Dr. Milton Ochieng'' was accepted to Dartmouth College, but he couldn''t afford the airfare to New England.

So fellow villagers sold $900 worth of chickens and goats to send Ochieng'' on his way. Ochieng'', now a resident at Washington University School of Medicine, remembers feeling that he had agreed to an unwritten contract. His community had sacrificed — and he would need to repay the debt.

Ochieng'' decided to enter medicine when he was young, after watching a friend''s mother die during a complicated childbirth. The woman was being pushed in a wheelbarrow on an hours-long journey to the hospital. He saw her lifeless body and the bloodstained wheelbarrow come back into the village.

"It was really scary hearing the eerie screams as they made their way back to the village," Ochieng'' said.

So Ochieng'' studied hard, gained entrance into a prestigious Kenyan high school and eventually Dartmouth. While at Dartmouth, Ochieng'' went on a service trip to build a clinic in Nicaragua. He and his family always had dreamed of building a clinic in Lwala. Now Ochieng'' thought he had a blueprint for the project. But he lacked funding.

So Ochieng'' began raising money as a medical student at Vanderbilt University, with his brother Fred Ochieng'', who was then studying at Dartmouth. In the next two years, the brothers raised $150,000 from sources ranging from grade-schoolers'' piggybanks to the Christian rock band Jars of Clay.

The clinic opened in April 2007. Perhaps exemplifying the need for the clinic, the Ochieng'' brothers'' parents died of AIDS before it could be completed.

The Ochieng'' Memorial Lwala Community Health Center sees about 100 patients a day and serves about 4,000 people. It''s expanding to include more services for women and children.

The clinic receives funding from the Lwala Community Alliance, a U.S.-based nonprofit started by the Ochieng'' brothers. "Sons of Lwala," a documentary about the clinic being screened at U.S. universities and submitted to the St. Louis International Film Festival, also helps with fundraising.

The clinic charges 75 cents for care, but about 85 percent of patients — including all children and the elderly — qualify for free care. It employs two clinical officers, the Kenyan equivalent of a physicians'' assistant; nurses; a pharmacist; a lab technician and other staff. The Ochieng'' brothers and others frequently fly to Kenya to volunteer.

On one of those trips, a woman in labor came in. It was clear her baby was in a breech position, and there was no time to take her to another facility.

With a donated textbook and over-the-phone guidance from a U.S. obstetrician, Milton Ochieng'' safely delivered the clinic''s first breech baby. That baby was the granddaughter of the woman who died in the wheelbarrow when Milton Ochieng'' was young.

"It had come full circle," Ochieng'' said.

Ochieng'' would like to send Washington U. residents and medical students to Kenya. He finds physicians who study abroad have a better understanding of the difficulties facing the international medical community.

After finishing his residency, Ochieng'' wants to continue traveling back and forth, acting as a bridge between his country and all American medicine has to offer.

While many of his fellow residents will choose futures on salary rather than community need, Ochieng'' doesn''t judge. He sees it as a cultural difference.

For him, serving his village is a privilege and a responsibility. Growing up, if he was hungry, he could knock on any door and be fed. Now, those same families can come to the clinic.

"It''s reciprocity," Ochieng'' said. "Everybody is responsible for everybody else."
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