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A branch from the vine

One of the few cardiothoracic surgeons in Africa receives a medical missions prize from a New York philanthropist

A branch from the vine

Dr. Russ White in Kenya (John Jumbi/AMHF)

A New York moment: 

Last year we wrote about Mark and Erica Gerson, a Jewish couple here in New York who have given millions to Christian medical missions. Last week they awarded the second annual L’Chaim Prize, $500,000 for excellence in medical missions work, to Dr. Russ White, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Tenwek Hospital in rural Kenya. The Gersons provide the funds through the African Mission Healthcare Foundation, but they have no say in who wins the L’Chaim Prize. A committee of 10 experienced doctors in Africa choose the winner. 

Erica Gerson, a rabbi, explained to the crowd of about 200 in a hotel ballroom that in Hebrew “l’chaim” is always plural—“no life is lived alone”—and that motivates their family’s giving. Then Mark Gerson stood up to pepper the winner with questions, as the crowd of elite New Yorkers listened. The Gersons are trying to get more people involved in giving to medical missions.  

White, who grew up with medical missionary parents in the Belgian Congo, has worked for 20 years as a surgeon at Tenwek. He has plenty of stories, and regaled the ballroom: One time he grabbed two car batteries in South Sudan, powered up an earthmover, and extended a rural runway so a plane for his team could land. 

Tenwek has 500 people on the waiting list now for heart surgery, and White admits that most will not survive by the time he gets to them. Esophageal cancer and rheumatic heart disease from untreated strep throat—both uncommon conditions in the United States—are common in Kenya and make up a lot of White’s caseload.  

With the L’Chaim Prize money, White will be starting a thoracic fellowship—the first program to train cardiac surgeons in all of sub-Saharan Africa. The first thoracic fellow was in the room: Dr. Agneta Odera, a Kenyan surgeon who has worked at Tenwek for 11 years. Once she completes the fellowship, she will become, according to White, the first thoracic surgeon trained in sub-Saharan Africa. 

“She will be one of the most highly trained surgeons on the continent,” said White, adding that “American teams will call her” for advice when they come to Africa. Another surgeon and friend of White’s who has traveled to work at Tenwek on and off sat next to me. He was describing Odera’s rapid ability to learn heart surgeries—he had watched her perform a mitral valve repair by herself after only two weeks of training. 

Odera was effacing when I talked to her afterwards. “Apart from God, this is nothing,” she said, then rattled off John 15: “I am the vine, you are the branches … apart from me you can do nothing.” 

Part of the Gersons’ philanthropic strategy is to build up successful training institutions like Tenwek. “I can be your very junior partner,” Mark Gerson told White.

Worth your time:  

A wonderful piece of reporting about the death of anti-suicide advocate J.J. Hanson. “His family began whispering, ‘It’s OK to let go.’ Father Berkmans approached the bed. ‘J.J., God is ready for you,’ he said. Hanson raised his hands. He flashed two thumbs up.”

This week I learned: 

Michael Keaton was one of the Flying Zookeeni Brothers on Mister Rogers. On March 6 PBS will air a tribute to the show, which premiered 50 years ago. 

A court case you might not know about: 

New York City has filed a lawsuit against five major oil companies, arguing that they have caused climate change and are therefore responsible for the city’s storm costs. The city is seeking billions of dollars in damages for the cost of Superstorm Sandy, and more to pay for preparations for future storms. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the lawsuit with much fanfare, but it seems—to put it mildly—unlikely to succeed.

Culture I am consuming: 

Phantom Thread, another epic film from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, which just garnered six Oscar nominations. This is perhaps Daniel Day Lewis’ final performance. Wow. It may not be a crowd pleaser, but I enjoyed every minute of it.

Postscript: Email me with tips, story ideas, and feedback.