Doctor Collects, Ships Medical Equipment For Use In Kenya
Evanson, IL - From stethoscopes to pacemakers and dialysis machines, the shipments of medical equipment a Wilmette doctor has sent to hospitals in Kenya have grown in size and sophistication.
Dr. Parag V. Patel, 43, was born in Kenya but came to the United States as a young boy with his family. In 1986, when he was a sophomore in college, he returned to Kenya to visit his relatives there. Although Patel had not yet decided to become a doctor, he was aware of the poor state of medical care in the country.
"We had a family friend who was a physician there," Patel said. During a visit to the national hospital, he saw facilities were so inadequate that two patients often had to share one bed. "I had a sense there was something I needed to do," Patel said.
He was a first-year medical student when he returned in 1989 and noticed that many physicians in training did not have a stethoscope, considered one of the most basic tools of a doctor, but too expensive for many Kenyans.
"Theyre one of largest stethoscope-makers in the world," Patel said. The company donated 50 new stethoscopes. Thats how humanitarian efforts can grow exponentially, Patel explained. "You need to find the right people in the organization who support what youre doing and want to participate," he said. "It takes perseverance."
Stethoscopes "became one of the key things we took with us." Stethoscopes may seem less valuable in the high-tech age of medicine, but its still "a symbol of being a physician and it empowers the newly trained physician to feel good in their occupation," he said.
Patel, the medical director of Advocate Lutheran Generals cardiac intensive care unit, also began sending pacemakers. He then approached hospital officials about sending used equipment, such as electrocardiographs, heart monitors, dialysis and X-ray machines, to Kenyan hospitals that cannot afford to buy them.
The devices probably have a decade-plus of use left in them, but many medical centers prefer to replace them with updated equipment, Patel said. He meets some resistance from manufacturers who want the equipment back so they can refabricate it and resell it.
"I negotiate with those. It works most of the time," Patel said.
In about 2006, Patel and the non-profit Foundation for International Cardiovascular Services he started, began shipping 40-foot containers of medical equipment and supplies to Kenya "at least annually and now twice a year," he said.
"I have become a logistical expert," Patel said. The transport takes from 3.5 weeks to almost 12 weeks.
"Early on, a dear friend would pick up the equipment, stage it at a warehouse, strap it on pallets, then pack it and shrink it for the journey. Its a journey from the hospital or my garage to a warehouse in Franklin Park that was donated by the village of Rosemont."
The containers go by train to the coast, usually New York, where they are shipped across the ocean, through the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea to the Kenyan port of Mombasa.
"We have help now, but it started with us doing it," Patel said.
Somali pirates have delayed the shipments, as ships have to change their course or go farther out to sea to avoid them, but the goods get through.
"Theres a lot of corruption in Kenya," Patel said. "But I have contacts that are trusted. I can assure that a piece of equipment goes from Park Ridge to Nairobi without getting lost or stolen."
Then Patel follows the equipment and trains doctors and nurses himself on how to use it.
"I teach them how to use the equipment we leave. I teach doctors how to put in regular pacemakers and then more sophisticated biventricular pacemakers.
"For nurses, its recognizing the heart rhythms on the monitor. Thats something simple here, but (in Kenya), they dont have the technology nor the training how to use the technology."
Patel hopes to stop the "brain drain" in Kenya. Kenyan physicians get their medical training in India or the United States. But many make a conscious effort to come back to their country to practice, Patel said. However, "they are frustrated because they dont have the resources they had in India or America. Theres no balloons or stents. They quickly get frustrated and leave because (they are) losing their skill set."
Patel wants to provide those physicians with the modern equipment and training available in other parts of the world, so "they will stay and take care of more of their countrymen. If I can keep one of these physicians from leaving, there are thousands and tens of thousands of patients they may be able to help in their careers," Patel said.
His wife, Rupa Desai, who is a family physician with NorthShore University Healthsystem in Evanston, and his children have accompanied him on trips to Kenya. His son Tejas, a sophomore at New Trier High School, helped his father in the operating room in a Kenyan hospital. His daughter, Shriya, an eighth-grader at Central School, has collected books and paper to bring to children in Nairobi.
"The community has been great," Patel said. "We have friends and neighbors who have pitched in." They understand what a commitment this is for him, "and a passion," Patel said.