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response when he asked fellow doctors to donate their out-of-date medical books.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
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.
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
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."
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
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
"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."