Monday, October 10, 2016
by Taylor Soldner
BJC MEDICAL GROUP, PWH, BJSPH | As a child in Lwala, Kenya, Milton Ochieng’, MD, saw the mother of one of his playmates die in labor because there was no hospital nearby. Witnessing that, and the deaths of other villagers who had no access to health care, inspired him to pursue a medical career and bring health care home to Lwala.
Now a gastroenterologist practicing with BJC Medical Group at Progress West Hospital and Barnes-Jewish St. Peters Hospital, he’s done just that.
Loss and inspiration
Patients who see Dr. Ochieng’ encounter an upbeat, compassionate clinician who listens and engages fully with them. But despite his upbeat demeanor, he has seen a depth of loss that’s hard for many people to imagine.
Growing up in rural Kenya, Dr. Ochieng and other Lwala residents had little access to health care. Villagers had to walk miles to the nearest hospital. He saw other village children die from illness because there was no doctor. When a friend’s mother died of complications in labor while being carried to the hospital, Dr. Ochieng’ knew that she could have been saved with the right care — had it been available. From this incident came his drive to be a doctor.
“I wanted to become a doctor because I wanted to change things and improve the lives of the community in Lwala,” Dr. Ochieng’ says.
The community embraced his goal, raising money to send him to school in the United States. After graduating from Dartmouth College and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, he came to St. Louis for his internship and residency at Washington University School of Medicine and Barnes-Jewish Hospital and did his gastroenterology fellowship at Brown University. He never lost his drive to become a physician and improve access to health care both in Kenya and in St. Louis.
“I still breathe, dream and sleep Lwala,” Dr. Ocheing’ says. “Some of that is because it is where I grew up.
The people of Lwala are the ones who sold their chickens, cows, sheep and goats to buy my plane ticket to the U.S. The only thing they requested was, ‘Don’t forget about us.’”
He never did.
From small health clinic to community hospital
During his medical education, Dr. Ochieng’ and his brother Fred Ochieng’, now also a physician, developed the Lwala Community Alliance (LCA), a non-profit organization (http://www.lwalacommunityalliance.org). Through LCA, Dr. Ochieng’ and his brother, along with community partners, medical school mentors and others, raised money to build what started as a small clinic only nine years ago. It has since grown into Lwala Community Hospital. The hospital had 30,574 patient visits in 2015 and delivered 459 babies.
Before the clinic opened, 60 out of 1,000 babies in the region died within 30 days of birth, according to Dr. Ochieng’. “But now, we are able to get 97 percent of all women to deliver in a health care facility, which, in turn, has cut neonatal infant mortality by 50 percent. Of course, there is still work to be done, but to think that 30 lives are saved within those first 30 days is amazing.”
This tremendous growth in such a short time is amazing, but the support and drive of Dr. Ochieng’, who is also a full-time gastroenterologist in St. Charles, is really amazing.
In addition to fund-raising campaigns and supporting the foundation’s board, Dr. Ochieng’ is passionate about providing care for his St. Louis-area gastroenterology patients daily.
He chose the St. Louis area for many reasons. “St. Louis is special because it’s close to my wife’s family in Illinois and we wanted our children to be close to their grandparents,” Dr. Ochieng’ says. “I also trained at Washington University for my internship and residency, and that’s where I met my wife, so St. Louis is special in that way.”
St. Charles drew his young family because it offers a community atmosphere. “I like St. Charles because the people here are very friendly and there is an opportunity to develop and get yourself into the community,” he says. “During my first year practicing here, one of my patients actually invited me to his local church. I like that there is a sense of community and it is a great place to raise my kids and have them interact with others and build relationships.”
St. Louis also has an international airport, which makes it easy to travel for fund-raising events and to visit Kenya.
“It’s a balancing act,” Dr. Ochieng’ says. “I enjoy providing care here in St. Charles, as well as supporting Lwala and giving back to other people who are not as fortunate. For example, we had a fund-raiser in Nashville, and we raised about $160,000 in one day.”
Dr. Ochieng’ also visits the Lwala Community Hospital about once a year. “I stay involved on the fund-raising and networking side, but I am also a clinician,” Dr. Ochieng’ says. “So I also help with improving the quality of care that is delivered on the ground, like through telemedicine. If they have questions on the ground, with tough clinical cases, sometimes we’ll get involved in trying to help them make a decision. But we have excellent clinicians who are there, providing care, every day.”
Lwala Community Alliance today
“It’s amazing to see how far we have come, because we were dreaming and wishing that our people could have health care close to home,” Dr. Ochieng’ says.
Today, the Lwala Community Alliance is thriving — supporting and expanding the clinic, adding providers and administrators, and turning the clinic into a fully operational community hospital. More patients are coming and more care is provided. For example, the hospital cared for 1,107 HIV patients in 2015, a 15 percent increase from 2014.
But Dr. Ochieng’s true passion is caring for the infants and newborns, who otherwise would have a high mortality rate. But in 2015, 98 percent of HIV-exposed infants tested negative for the infection at 18 months.
“I have two kids now, a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old,” Dr. Ochieng’ says. “To think that if they’d been born in my village, before the hospital was built and fully operating, their chance of dying was so high within those first 30 days is very sad.”
On his trip to Lwala this past spring, Dr. Ochieng’ encountered the fear that still grips young mothers during childbirth, even though the infant mortality rate has decreased significantly. He was assisting with a delivery when the baby experienced respiratory distress.
“We were resuscitating the baby and giving her oxygen to clear her airway, and the mother looked me in the eye and asked me a question that really put things in perspective: ‘Do you think she is going to live or do I need to call my husband and tell them to prepare for a funeral?’” Dr. Ochieng’ says. “It brought tears to my eyes, standing there, thinking of my own children and comparing the birthing process and everything that was available for us in the U.S.”
Before, there wouldn’t have been skilled health care providers to help the woman through delivery, and there wouldn’t have been oxygen for her daughter. There would have been the very real possibility that the baby wouldn’t survive.
“I looked back at the mother and said, ‘Yes, I think she is going to live and we’ll do everything we can to help her live,’” Dr. Ochieng’ says. “The baby lived. We handed the woman her baby back and she was thrilled. That was a life that was saved because that woman had come in seeking care at our health care facility where we have the equipment and materials necessary to really provide care on the spot.”
Taylor Soldner, Taylor.Soldner@bjc.org
Tags : Ochieng', Llwala
Number of views (6970)/Comments (25)
10/10/2016 2:31 PM
Great work being done by Dr. Ochieng and family.
10/10/2016 2:48 PM
Dr Ochieng' is such a wonderful person and provider. Keep up the good work, Doc!
10/10/2016 2:58 PM
This is a beautiful example of commitment. Dr. Ochieng is an excellent example of someone using their talents to help others and improve the world.
10/10/2016 4:00 PM
10/10/2016 10:50 PM
What an inspiration to us all! Dr. Ochieng' is an incredible and caring physician who goes above and beyond for his patients! A true asset to the BJC and the St. Louis community!
10/11/2016 6:09 AM
10/11/2016 8:23 AM
Thats what it is all about!!!! Very insprational!!
10/11/2016 8:30 AM
A beautiful and inspiring story! Dr Ochieng emulates what it is all really about, caring for those who need our help the most! Keep up the great work!
10/11/2016 9:16 AM
Dr. Ochieng I am soo proud of your accomplishments. I had the pleasure of working with you and not only are you a good doctor but you are an awesome individual. Thanks for your hard work despite!
Henry Woods Jr.
10/11/2016 10:29 AM
Great story and glad to see you doing what you love and what you have a passion for. Keep up the great work and continued respect and determination for you. I am very proud of you. Henry Woods, Jr.
10/11/2016 11:17 AM
What a beautiful story Dr Ochieng. I am very proud of you!
I would like to write in Swahili," Mungu azidi kukubariki na familia yako"! I will translate that in English "may god continue to bless you and your family"
10/12/2016 10:38 PM
You are an inspiration to many Milton!!
10/13/2016 12:40 AM
Great work... "safi sana." Stay blessed.
10/13/2016 8:12 AM
Great story Dr Ochieng and thanks for giving back. God Bless you.
10/13/2016 8:51 AM
Awesome service to humanity. May the commitment, strength and devotions to this noble cause never end. Viva LCA!
10/14/2016 8:46 AM
This indeed is a very touching and inspiring read. Thanks for sharing the information with all of us, and thank you Dr. Ochieng’ for giving back - this is truly what it's all about and what motivates me to work in healthcare.
10/14/2016 9:42 AM
What an amesome testimony! Keep up the the good work Dr.Ochieng!
10/14/2016 5:00 PM
Gave me chills!! You're an amazing man, Dr. O'Chieng!!
10/14/2016 5:55 PM
Wow! What a story, I knew he seemed very special, now I know why!
10/14/2016 6:48 PM
7 years of pain and suffering and you gave me my life back! You're a god-sent Dr. Ochieng!
10/15/2016 9:24 AM
Dr. O'Chieng you are awesome! I know the challenges of health care in that part of the world, having come from Africa myself. You are a compassionate young man with a heart of gold. Many blessings to you and your family. I hope you find your reward in the work you do. Thank you!
10/23/2016 2:12 AM
Wow! Such a moving, inspirational, and uplifting story. Dr. O'Chieng you are truly an amazing and caring individual. Thank you for the care in which you have provided and the many blessings you have given to those who face such difficulty.
10/25/2016 8:40 AM
This is such an awesome story. One of the greatest things one can do is "give back" to others. Because you care about others, Dr. O'Chieng, you will be blessed beyond measures. Thank God for such a person like you. He uses ordinary people, but in our sight you are GREAT! Thank for sharing your story.
10/26/2016 8:35 AM
Ajuoga!! You are an inspiration, and gift to this world. Keep doing the awesome work!
Kerry Ann Gray
10/28/2016 10:17 AM
Thank you for being true and keeping your promise to the people back home in your country . I must say that your story , left me with tears running down my face and a smile at the sme time. Continue to keep up the good work and God bless!