American Heroes: US Doctors Help Revive Struggling Hospital in Liberia to Save Children


American Doctors Volunteer in War-Torn Hospital With No Water or Electricity

We soon meet up with Andy, who greets us at the John F. Kennedy Hospital in Liberia's capital city, Monrovia. Like the nation itself, the hospital is still traumatized by the war. Less than half of the hospital's 400 beds are useable but that the place is open at all is a bit of a miracle.

The hospital was a gift back in the 1960s to the people of Liberia from the United States. Once considered the best medical facility in all of West Africa, a referral center complete with helicopter landing pad, the devastating 14-year civil war has left the place in ruins.

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The hospital's administrator, an extraordinary woman named Dr. Wvannie McDonald, tells me wistfully of a day when she was a young doctor here, a time when JFK had a paging system and central air conditioning, when fountains bubbled at the front door. That day is long gone.

At one point during the war, 20,000 people sought refuge on the hospital grounds. The operating room had a hole in the ceiling open to the sky. Machine guns poked out of the windows. The JFK hospital came to be known as the "Just For Killing" Hospital.

Along with many of those who could, Dr. McDonald left Liberia during the war. She thought she'd be able to return after a few years, but as the war raged on, it became clear that she could not go home. She made a life for herself and her family in Indiana. But that came to an end in 2006 when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president of Liberia. Dr. McDonald remembers a cold winter's day when the phone rang and the president asked her to come home and bring JFK back to life. She said she felt she had no choice.

It was a daunting assignment. The hospital had no running water and no electricity. The medical equipment had all been looted, as had the beds and even the linens. The wounds of war were everywhere. And worst of all, there were virtually no doctors left. The World Health Organization estimated that there was one doctor for every 100,000 Liberians. In the U.S. the number is closer to one for every 200.

So that is where Andy and a team of American physicians have come in. Working with the truly astounding staff at JFK, and led by Dr. MacDonald, an impressive organization of America's finest medical schools have banded together to provide doctors to JFK. Nearly two dozen medical schools including Yale, Harvard and the University of Chicago, send residents and faculty to JFK. Doctors like Andy.

The group is called HEARTT and it was founded by another remarkable man, Dr. James Sirleaf the son of the president. During the war, his mother brought him to the United States. Now an emergency room doctor in Bridgeport, Conn., Dr. Sirleaf started using his vacation each year to help out at JFK. But, he says, he soon realized so much more was needed and HEARTT was born. Now more than 70 American doctors a year take turns going to JFK with the HEARTT program.

RESOURCES: Learn more about the HEARTT program

Andy and his HEARTT colleagues are not only providing much needed care, their mission is broader: to teach the next generation of health care workers, not just new doctors -- whose numbers graduating each year from the medical school are increasing -- but also midwives, nurses and physician assistants.

The goal is to provide direct clinical instruction, but, more importantly, to serve as role models of excellence, both clinically and professionally. Due to the lack of resources and lapses in education for so long, in Liberia the expectations are often set low for what can be done for the patient. Although their Liberian collegues are extremely hard working, smart and dedicated, they were often discouraged from the years of being able to provide very little for their patients.

But as the overall health system improves and providers have more tools to fight disease, HEARTT volunteers work hard to help "raise the bar" of what can be done. Thus, both improving clinical care for patients, and the morale of the health care providers who then take on more ownership and fulfillment in their work.

Andy tells me the lessons he learned on the gridiron have served him well here. On rounds in the pediatric unit, his focus and determination are on full display. Watching him work you can feel his intensity, the coiled energy. Bringing his whole being to every tiny patient.

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