NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When residents of a tiny Kenyan village sold their chickens and cattle to buy Milton Ochieng's $900 plane ticket to Dartmouth College, they told him they wanted something in return.
Eight years later, he's a Vanderbilt University Medical School graduate preparing for his residency. In his home village of Lwala, a clinic he and younger brother Fred established serves about 100 patients a day.
A documentary about their struggles to raise $150,000 to build the clinic — while attending school full-time and coping with their parents' deaths — will soon be screened at universities across the country.
"It's not common to have a couple of village boys come to the U.S. and advocate for a clinic to be built in their country," said Barak Bruerd, program director of Blood:Water Mission, a Nashville-based nonprofit that has contributed to the clinic. "The fact that they were able to bring so much support to their community is amazing."
Before the clinic, Ochieng' says, sick villagers often had to be carried for miles just to get to a paved road.
As a child, he remembers seeing a friend's mother taken away in a wheelbarrow during a difficult labor. Neighbors pushed her for 45 minutes before she died.
The image stuck with him. His father, high school chemistry teacher Erastus Ochieng', emphasized the need for health care closer to the community. It was his dream to see a clinic in Lwala, a village of about 1,500 people in southwestern Kenya.
It wasn't until a college service trip to Nicaragua, where students worked alongside villagers to build such a facility, that Ochieng' started to think his father's dream could become reality.
The elder Ochieng' would not live to see the project completed. He died in 2005 of AIDS, the same disease that killed Ochieng's mother the year before.
Medical school in Tennessee
For several years, Ochieng' made plans. Fred followed him to Dartmouth and then on to medical school at Vanderbilt. By 2005, Ochieng' was ready to build, except he had no money. So he put Fred in charge of fundraising.
That weekend, Fred Ochieng' raised $9,000 at a conference for a Christian ministry group. But it took another two years to raise the $150,000 they needed.
They were finally able to open the clinic in April 2007, helped by a $45,000 donation from Blood:Water Mission, which was founded by Christian rockers Jars of Clay to reduce the impact of HIV and AIDS in Africa.
In its first year, the clinic saw 20,000 patients at a cost of about $100,000.
"It's important for people to get a sense of how far the U.S. dollar can go," Ochieng' says, noting that one woman had emergency surgery for an ectopic pregnancy at a cost of only $250. A similar procedure could cost at least $10,000 in the U.S.
Growing number of patients
The volume of patients is growing, Ochieng' says, because of the high standard of care the clinic provides, even without running water or a consistent electrical supply.
Many relatives of Lwala residents come from other communities. The clinic, which serves about 4,000 residents of Lwala and the area surrounding it, turns no one away and treats about 85 percent of its patients for free.
The clinic now benefits from a U.S.-based nonprofit, the Lwala Community Alliance, but Ochieng' says it struggles to raise operating funds, even as staffers plan to expand with a maternity ward and HIV/AIDS wing.
Babies are currently delivered in the kitchen.
"It's not ideal," Ochieng' says.
The clinic is also getting help from former television reporter Barry Simmons, who quit his job after interviewing the Ochieng' brothers to work full time on a documentary about their struggles to build the clinic. "Sons of Lwala" has so far raised about $230,000.
"It was always the plan to give them a platform to raise money and spread their story," Simmons said.
Ochieng' spent April in Lwala, but the clinic also employs two clinical officers — the equivalent of a physician's assistant in the U.S. — and three nurses. Ochieng' hopes to be able to shuttle between Kenya and the U.S., where he will do his residency at Washington University in St. Louis.
"There's such a sense of love and people feeling they've gained so much from the health center," he says. "It keeps me going. ... It makes you realize how great it is to be a doctor, how great it is to be serving humanity."