East Bay doctor helps bring health care to Kenya

April 29, 2010 10:46:23 PM PDT
When a local doctor visited Kenya six years ago, she never imagined it would mark the beginning of a lifelong project that would transform part of the country.

Dr. Gail Wagner is a Kaiser oncologist with a full time practice in the East Bay, but she has managed bring medical care to a region of Kenya where it was all but impossible to come by, changing countless lives in the process.

"When we got there, there was nobody else there, it was a forgotten little corner that had never seen international aid," Wagner said.

But the people of rural western Kenya knew what they needed and Wagner would be just the person to help them establish quality health care.

"I don't know of another program like this in the world, let's put it that way, founded by one or two individuals for whom it's a part time interest," Dr. Robert Pearl said.

Pearl is CEO of the Permanente Medical Group.

"They didn't have a staff, they didn't have a fundraising machine, they didn't have a corporation behind them, they just went out and did it because it was the right thing to do," Pearl said.

A friend of Wagner's daughter, a young Kenyan named Dan Ogola, invited her to come help in the rural community where he grew up. She brought a team of seven other Kaiser doctors for that first trip.

"We got there and we found incredibly sick people who are incredibly knowledgeable and proactive and they hooked us," Wagner said.

Pediatrician Amanda Schoenberg has been back nine times since that initial journey, using all her vacation time and even taking unpaid leave to teach pediatrics and follow up on health care programs she has established with the Kenyans, from fighting malaria to deworming children.

"Our goal is to rally create a healthy community and the people are so appreciative, the people have become like family," Schoenberg said.

That original mission -- treating 5 thousand people at 10 free clinics -- sparked the creation of Matibabu, which means healing in Swahili. The program is the brainchild of Ogola and Wagner.

"Dan and I are both dreamers; every step of the way, people told us, 'You can't do that, it won't' work.' Why won't it work? Sure it'll work, and then we just went ahead and did it," Wagner said.

Matibabu now has 72 paid Kenyan employees, a federal grant of $1.5 million for AIDS relief, a dedicated team of volunteers there year round and the plans to build a first class hospital.

"We have enough money to build the first module, and I'm hoping when people see it, especially Kenyans, and they see we're not scamming them when we're asking for money, the money will come," Wagner said.

She is most proud of the people of Ugenya and the partnership that's fostered health, changed lives and shaped a community.

"It's probably the most important thing I'll ever do with my life," Wagner said.


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