OU-COM student leads health care team to Kenya, giving hope to a country in need

By Gary Snyder

In his Luo tribal language, "broad shoulders" translates to "gok maduong." Throughout his life, Benson Bonyo's go k maduong have borne the weight of extreme poverty, personal tragedy and an environment that nearly guaranteed failure in his native Kenya. Yet, amid the adversity, Bonyo saw "geno," or hope.

Hope triumphed in the seemingly impossible journey of Bonyo -- a fourth-year student in the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine -- when he led a 28-member health care and research team from the university on a four-week expedition to Western Kenya in December. The group, named SHARE Kenya -- for Student Health Assistance Rural Experience -- provided medical care at Aga Khan Hospital in Kisumu and at a rural clinic in Ahero near Wangaya, the village where Bonyo grew up.

SHARE Kenya consists of OU-COM faculty, nurses, medical students and pre-medical students, and researchers from Ohio University's Tropical and Geographical Disease Institute.

The SHARE Kenya members braved floods, a cholera outbreak and a nationwide nursing strike during their stay in the East African nation. The s trike three days before the group arrived shut down public hospitals in Kenya and increased the need for medical caregivers. The group was warmly received in the rural area of Ahero, where the majority of OU's medical students and doctors were stationed. On a typical day, the team at the Ahero clinic saw 250 to 300 patients, some of whom had walked for hours.

Heavy rains and flooding forced thousands of Kenyans from their homes, causing the outbreak of cholera -- an acute diarrheal disease resul ting from poor sanitation and contaminated water. Cholera strikes quickly and brings severe dehydration, which can cause death within hours if fluids are not restored. Many cholera patients were treated successfully by the group. The disease was too advanced in one young girl, who died at the clinic.

Third year OU-COM student Mary Willy received a live chicken and rice from an appreciative mothe r whose baby she delivered.

Photo: Gary Snyder

The group treated patients with a variety of other serious illnesses, including malaria (which causes more than 25 percent of all Kenyan deaths), tuberculosis, measles, HIV/AIDS, parasitic diseases, pneumonia, and pediatric diseases such as diarrhea and malnutrition. The infant mortality rate in the region's villages is more than 60 percent.

The SHARE Kenya team met with Kenyan health care official s to establish clinical rotation agreements for OU-COM students in Kenya and to discuss physician exchange opportunities. Bonyo and the osteopathic college plan to develop an ongoing educational relationship with Kenyan hospitals and clinics, and hope the SHARE Kenya trip becomes an annual event. Bonyo and several medical students first visited Kenyan medical facilities in 1994.

OU-COM officials say these experiences give students a deeper appreciation for the role culture plays in health care, as well as a first-hand understanding of medical problems in a Third World country where an estimated 70 percent of the population lacks access to or the means to afford adequate health care.

One example was a 9-year-old boy who arrived at the clinic with a serious infection and abscess in his thigh. The child required surgery to save the leg and his life -- treatment his family could not afford, according to OU-COM Assistant Professor of Surgery and team member Regine Neptune-Ceran, D.O. '88. T he SHARE team contributed more than $600 to offset the child's surgery and medical expenses. They also brought 21 boxes of donated medical supplies and medications from U.S. companies and hospitals that were given free to patients.

Bonyo's life "a miracle from God"

As Bonyo walked through the streets of rural Ahero clad in his blue hospital scrubs, looks of joy and pride appeared on the faces of those he passed. To most residents of Luo, it's a fantasy: a native son who somehow br oke through the taut web of poverty and geographic isolation, made it to America to study medicine, and managed to bring 27 of his colleagues from Ohio back to Kenya with him.

But to Bonyo, it's nothing short of a "hono mar Nyasaye" or "miracle from God."

"Even now when I look back, I don't know how I did it," Bonyo says of his improbable sojourn. "Growing up, we were very, very poor -- it wasn't unusual for us to go without food. We didn't have money, but my mother and father always taugh t us to use what we did have, which was prayer. Despite our poverty, they encouraged me to pursue whatever dream I had because God would help and some miracles would happen."

Bonyo grew up in a village of farmers with an average income of $100 a year. The highest education level attained by anyone in his 100-member extended family was sixth grade. He received a full-tuition scholarship to attend Northwood Community College in Texas, and he raised the money for air fare to the United States by bi cycling door to door around his village for months. He went on to graduate from the community college and then the University of Texas before beginning medical school at OU-COM.

Sister's death left lasting impact

For Bonyo, the trip to Kenya helped fulfill a promise he made to himself nearly three decades ago when he saw his 9-month-old sister die of dehydration in his village.

"I can still see her face, her pain," he says. "She died because we could not travel to or afford t o go to the hospital. I felt if there was a way I could help prevent needless deaths like that of my sister's, I would do it. During our work in Ahero, it felt good to make a difference and be able to give these kids the kind of care my sister did not have.

"Most deaths in our villages occur because people can't make it to a hospital in time or they can't afford it. I would like to build a hospital because it would serve thousands of people and help save many lives."

Bonyo says the SHARE Kenya group members can apply what they learned to any underserved population, whether in Ohio or Africa. He says they left a lasting impression on the Ahero community.

"I was sitting with a couple of my dad's friends under a shade tree near our home that's like our meeting hall," Bonyo says. "One of the elders said, 'I don't know America at all, but these Americans must be special people to come all this way to take care of our people.'

"The SHARE Kenya group is made up of special people. To travel thousands of miles to help any way they could and to face hardships they've never faced, it's amazing to me. Seeing medical students, doctors and nurses from the U.S. in my village was like a dream to me.

"People on the streets of Ahero have told me they feel we are like angels sent from God to help them."

For Jaunita Hongo, medical director of the Ahero Clinic, seeing Bonyo return home proves some dreams do come true.

"Bonyo is a son of this soil," she says. "We a re very much proud of him because most of our parents believe that once our children go abroad, they never come back. But Bonyo came back to help and came with doctors so that we can interact and learn more about each other. We hope God may help him bring more doctors in the future."

Bonyo is expected to receive his doctor of osteopathic medicine degree from OU in June. The SHARE group has pledged to raise the funds so his father can make his first trip to America to see his son graduate. Gary Snyder, BSJ '86, associate director in OU-COM's Communications Office, accompanied the SHARE team to Kenya.

Ohio University TODAY SPRING 1998Ohio University Front DoorOhio University Today Front Door