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Friday July 12, 2024
Social Service
Idealistic Dreams With Chutzpa
Vol: 1 Num: 2    Spring 2006
Dr. Parag Patel is driven by idealism despite corruption, poverty, war, illness and crime to bring up the medical infrastructure in his birthplace Kenya so that they will have the basics.

The books were overwhelming Ė more than 1,000 in all. With only three days left before Parag V. Patel and his family flew to Nairobi, Kenya, how would he get them all packed and shipped?

Patel, Director of Cardiac Intensive Care at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, IL, hadnít expected this kind of response when he asked fellow doctors to donate their out-of-date medical books.

Challenges like this were to become everyday events for Patel, but in 1995 the task seemed insurmountable.

"Ever since I visited Kenya as a first year medical student in 1989, I had wanted to do something meaningful for the country," Patel said. "I said to myself, youíve seen it. Now you really are going to do something about it."

What heíd seen was a country of more than 33 million people where fathers watched their daughters die of rheumatic heart disease and families went hungry because parents with heart conditions could not work. Where the biggest public hospital, Kenyatta National in Nairobi, had 1,600 beds for 3,000 patients and medical students shared stethoscopes.

To Patel, it just didnít seem right.

Family Matters

Patel was born in Kenya in 1966 to Indian parents. In 1969 Patelís father left Kenya for the United States. Patel and his mother followed in 1970. Patelís maternal relations remained in Kenya, part of the Nairobi Indian community that has dwindled from its peak of 100,000 in the 1970s to about 50,000 today.

When Patel was a child he and his parents made several visits to Kenya. As a sophomore in high school, he visited on his own for a couple of months. But it was on a visit in 1989 that the differences between life in Kenya and life in the United States came into sharp focus.

Patel had finished his first year at Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Iowa. During his visit to Kenya, he worked with a family friend, a doctor on staff at a private Nairobi hospital.

Everywhere Patel looked, he saw severe shortages of the most basic items Ė from gauze to splints, tape to antibiotics. Most shocking was seeing 10-to-15 medical students sharing one stethoscope, a tool heíd seen handed out like chewing gum to medical students back in the States.

"Thatís when the framework was laid for the work Iím now doing," Patel said. "I was raised in the United States, but there is an emotional bond that drew me to Kenya."

Determination Pays Off

Six years later Patel and his wife, Rupa V. Desai, a native of India and a family physician at Evanston Northwestern Healthcare in Evanston, IL, spent hours wrapping a sea of donated books. The strain must have shown at work because a nurse asked Patel what was wrong.

"When I explained the problem, she said it was just the kind of thing her father would want to do," Patel said. "I could hardly believe it when he volunteered to pick up all the books, hand wrap them and put them into boxes. Thatís when I realized there are people out there who want to help."

That year Patel, his wife and their children took 20 boxes of books with a number of stethoscopes thrown in for good measure Ė a mere 70 pounds per box Ė to Kenya as carry-on baggage. Patel had convinced Lufthansa to wave shipping charges.

Things were easier at the other end of the journey. Patelís grandfather and uncle in Kenya are in the medical equipment business, a coincidental tie-in with his own efforts. Relatives met Patel at the Nairobi airport with trucks and advice on how to get through customs. The trip left Patel and his wife exhausted, but triumphant.

In 1998 Patel went back, this time with about 50 stethoscopes, more books and 20 pacemakers donated by technology companies such as Medtronic, Guidant and St. Jude Medical.

"I just asked them," Patel said, sounding amazed at his own chutzpa. "As Iíd gone through training Iíd realized the power of the people I knew. As I grew in my career, my ability to ask people to step up also grew exponentially."

Advocate Lutheran also has helped Patel by donating the hospitalís older equipment. Valued at nearly two million dollars so far, the donations have included defibrillators and incubators for infants.

"Dr. Patel volunteers his time in Kenya, teaches and does procedures there for free," said Mike Raslau, supervisor of biomedical engineering at Advocate Lutheran. "I think heís a great guy, very smart, capable and down to earth, too."

As an interventional cardiologist, Patel also has the skills to implant pacemakers. In Kenya, patients who need pacemakers must pay for them before going to the hospital. Those who canít afford the devices, do without.

"Many times a person with a heart condition that would respond to a pacemaker canít walk or work in the fields," Patel said. "Itís devastating to their families. In Kenya there is no social net, no disability benefits. Each time I visit there are people whoíve been in the hospital for months. Their families are doing fundraisers to collect money for the pacemaker and the fee to implant it."

To counter such situations, Patel now is building a pacemaker bank within his uncleís company. Patients apply for the devices. They are distributed to those in greatest need for a small processing fee, one-tenth to one-twentieth of the actual cost.

In January 2006 Patel made a 13-day visit to Kenya with biomedical technician Arvinder (Raju) Bharaj. Bharaj, born in Jalandur in the state of Punjab, India, met Patel while working in Kenya as an engineer for Fuji Kenya, a company that supplies medical equipment. Today Bharaj runs Ecotech, a Toronto company that he founded to supply medical technology equipment to clients in East Africa and Zambia.

In Kenya with Patel, Bharaj installed machines including ICU monitors, defibrillators, infant warmers, incubators and ultrasound scanners, converted the machines to local voltage and made sure they were in working order. He helped Patel train hospital staff members to use the machines, and trained local technicians on how to maintain the machines.

"I am uniquely suited to this job because I have extensive contacts within the medical fraternity in Kenya who can advise us on where the need is greatest," Bharaj said. "I know local regulations for shipping and clearing, and local engineers and technicians who will be able to provide technical support in the long run. And I speak Swahili, which is the commonly used local language."

Global FICS

Patelís efforts come at a cost. Each item he sends to Kenya must be shrink-wrapped, placed in a shipping container and sent on a five-to-six week truck, train and ship trek around the world. Each container costs $4,000-to-$5,000.

Until recently news of Patelís work and his need for support has spread by word-of-mouth. One U.S. patient, feeling grateful after receiving a pacemaker, paid for the shipment of two equipment-bearing containers.

As the project continued to grow, Patel realized he needed a structure in which to raise funds for it. In 2004 he founded an NGO, Global FICS (Foundation for International Cardiovascular Services), with the mission of training, educating and providing the infrastructure to foster the development of the healthcare system in Kenya. He hopes the NGO will help create buzz for his work.

"What I started has taken on a life of its own," Patel said. "Iíve always been an idealistic dreamer and itís hard for me to believe that my little successes have led to this. My goal is to bring up the infrastructure in Kenya over the next decade so that they have the basics. My idealism is driving me despite corruption, poverty, war, illness and crime. I still believe that the region is rich in people and that it is a resource worth saving."

Janice Rosenberg is a freelance writer based in Chicago, IL


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