Posts Tagged ‘Tamale’

FINAL SALUTE TO A GOOD MAN

Monday, October 3rd, 2016

Doctor David Abdulai, a hero to me, went home to the Father last night. He died of stage four thyroid cancer after a life of public service in his native Ghana and years of medically treating the poorest of the poor and the most destitute in his two free clinics in Tamale, Ghana. I grieve his loss today deeply. Those readers who had children confirmed by me this year know that I devoted my homily to this good man in the hopes of striking a chord in the hearts of the young for service to the poor.

Doctor David Abdulai, his wife, Christopher Mertens and I last Christmas.

Myself, Doctor David Abdulai, his wife, and Christopher Mertens last Christmas.

David Abdulai was born a Muslim in northeast Ghana almost seven decades ago. His father had died of Hansen’s disease (leprosy) when David was still a young boy and most of his eight siblings also suffered from the disease. Irish missionaries saw intelligence and fire in the young boy and approached his single mother asking her permission to allow David to attend a Catholic boarding/elementary school in the small city of Tamale. She agreed and David started a Catholic education in the first grade that would accompany him until secondary school graduation. He was bright, exceedingly bright and an outstanding student.

After winning a scholarship to and graduating with highest honors from the University of Ghana in Accra, he chose medicine as his profession, specializing in surgery. He won a fellowship in surgery to a Medical College in Liverpool, England and came home with a wife and family and practiced his calling in Accra, the capital city.

As an adult, having been surrounded by Christianity and Catholicism in his formative years, he decided to become a Catholic and entered the Church with baptism, confirmation and first Eucharist on the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord. He recounted to me that moment last Christmas when I met and visited with him for what for me, sadly, would be my first and last time, that the readings that day from the Old Testament offered this line: “Comfort my people O Lord, comfort my people.” It would serve to drive his ambitions and desires for the rest of his life.

With his children largely grown, he returned to Tamale and served as the Minister of Health for that Ghana province. But soon he would make a life-changing decision, give all his fame and fortune up and open a clinic for the nation’s poorest of the poor. With acreage given to him by a tribal chief, he built and opened the first of what today are two Shekinah clinics. Here he treated all who came and who could not access, for whatever reason, the government health care system. And they came, for over twenty years.

He would arrange his daily schedule so that he could see 120 patients each day, ninety new cases and thirty follow-up cases. He erected an operating theatre where he would perform some minor surgeries, like hernia repairs.

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The operating room at the clinic.

He scrounged and managed to stock a pharmacy. He built wards for the surgical patients to recover and huts for the lepers in which to live.

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Wards and residences for patients and Hansen’s disease residents.

Through volunteers with gifts of food (Catholic Relief Services through US AID for many years provided food) he served all who came to the clinic, those who lived there and those who were simply overnight residents.

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The kitchen and cooks at the Shekinah Clinic.

Several times the government tried to shut his clinic down but they never succeeded because everyone knew of the work of this great man, his wife and his volunteers.

So magnetic was his personality and deep his devotion that he assembled a team of volunteers who assisted him 24/7/365. No one was paid. Not even the doctor who lived off what he had saved from his earlier practice of medicine. He opened a second clinic, as people would cross the border from Burkina Faso to see him. When confronted with a patient with such a serious disease that he could not treat them, he would have them wait for him to finish his daily work and then would drive them in his jeep to the local government hospital and insist that they be cared for, not leaving until it was done.

Every Christmas he and his wife would feed Christmas dinner to the poor of the region at their home, a total numbering in excess of 3200 last Christmas. On the 27th, the day I arrived, he had a second Christmas dinner for the blind, deaf, lame, widowed and leprous who for physical reasons could not come on Christmas. Talk about feeding the 5000. My task that day was to simply give them a Christmas present of one super large bar of shea butter soap (from the region) and a new dishtowel plus some candy (all donated).

They called Dr. Abdulai “the male Mother Theresa of West Africa”. To watch him work and interact with people lacking in hope was life changing. His energy level far exceeded anything I could give. His love of his Catholic faith and the joy that Pope Francis brought to him was palpable. In both clinics there is to be found a small mosque at the entrance, a chapel where Mass is celebrated at times throughout the week, and a Star of David is painted on the wall of the examining room – his desire to show and share that all are welcome regardless of faith.

How did I come to know him? That is a story in itself but I will make it short. One summer two seminarians at that time, brothers, and one sophomore at Notre Dame talked to me about spending the summer working in Africa. I called my beloved Catholic Relief Services knowing that they had such a program, and they arranged for the three to spend ten weeks in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ghana. The Notre Dame student, Christopher Mertens, an Eagle Scout, the St. Petersburg Times male scholar athlete of the year in his senior year at Palm Harbor University High School, a member of the Diocesan Youth Council and son of an elementary school teacher at Guardian Angels school in Clearwater, was sent to the Clinic in Tamale and spent the summer with the Doctor.

His emails home to his parents and to myself radiated a respect for Dr Abdulai that spanned the ocean. Then Chris came down with malaria. Doctor Abdulai rushed to his side and prescribed the necessary medicines. Chris could have come home because of the malaria but he stayed. He lived in the clinic at bare subsistence level, but every new day brought new patients to the clinic and he helped as best he could. The love that the staff and the doctor had for Chris was abundantly evident when Chris took me to Tamale and to the doctor on Christmas day last year.

I’m off to my chapel to offer Mass today for this great man, thankful to God for having had the opportunity to meet him and see where and how he performed the works of mercy. I am thankful to Catholic Relief Services for their help to the clinic in the past and I am grateful to Christopher Mertens for unwittingly and unknowingly being the catalyst for allowing me one of the great moments of my adult lifetime. Dr. David Abdulai and the clinic staff welcomed us on December 27th and he was proud that his young American was then in his fourth semester of Medical School at Tulane in New Orleans. God takes and God gives. It happens all the time and we just don’t seem to want to notice it.

Rest now in the peace of the Lord you servant, good doctor to the poor, and may the Divine Physician embrace you for your life lived on earth.

+RNL

MY NOMINEE FOR THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Christopher Mertens with Dr. Abdulai and his wife at the Shekhinah Clinic in Tamale, Ghana

Christopher Mertens is a junior at Notre Dame University in pre-med. [In the interest of full disclosure, his older sister Maria is our new WebMaster at the Diocese of St. Petersburg and assists with the mounting and presentation of these blog entries after I have finished writing them.] The Mertens family attends Light of Christ Catholic Church in Clearwater. Christopher, through the kindness and support of Catholic Relief Services, had an opportunity this past summer to work at a clinic in Tamale, Ghana (northern section of the country) with a man whom, if I were on the nominating committee for the Nobel Peace Prize, would be my nominee and remain such until he received it.

Doctor David Abdulai has now founded two clinics in Tamale which treat the indigent, the mentally challenged, and lepers. The last is little wonder since the doctor’s own parents had Hanson’s disease (leprosy). After medical school, Dr. Abdulai practiced medicine in the government hospitals of Ghana and created a comfortable living for himself and his family. Born a Muslim, the doctor became a Roman Catholic as an adult, but his practice of medicine is open to and extremely sensitive to all the major religions of his area.  At some point, feeling that his family had enough to live on, he left the more lucrative practice of medicine (understanding that in Ghana “lucrative” probably means a lot less than in the United States) and decided to devote his life to treating the poor.

His first clinic he named the Shekhinah Clinic and opened its doors to those so poor they were refused treatment in the government hospitals of the Tamale region. Using ground he procured for the purpose, he opened examining rooms and an operating theatre. Then he built small huts since most of his patients came long distances and needed a place to stay before and after seeing the doctor and following surgery. He charges them nothing, either for his medical services or room and board while at the clinic. Because he treats the mentally ill, he is sometimes referred to as “the crazy doctor,” but to his nation and to his region, he is the male Mother Theresa of Calcutta who sees the face of God in every poor person in need of his help.

The whole operation is run on the principle of Deus Providebit or “God will provide.” He now has two of these clinics in different parts of Tamale among which he splits his time and receives sufficient food gifts and medicine to care for the indigent yet hope-filled people he sees. There are obvious human and professional limitations on how many he can see. At the Shekhinah Clinic where Christopher spent the summer, three days a week, sixty people are scheduled for examination. Dr. Abdulai readily admits that he could take more, but they would not then receive the careful, personal attention from him which they need. Patient beyond belief with his patients, there is no more concerned person in Ghana than this doctor sitting opposite his patient.

Not fully satisfied that the two clinics were doing enough for the region’s poor, Dr. Abdulai also started a nutrition and feeding program for the mentally ill on the streets who are completely alone and have no one else to care for them. For many years, Catholic Relief Services was able to assist in providing food from US-AID and the UN World Food Program to the clinics and to the poor but our government in its wisdom has largely dried up that source. It matters not to Dr. Abdulai because God will provide and God still does. God even now provides doctors from Germany, Canada, Scotland and England and occasionally from the United States who come to the clinics and assist the doctor for a few weeks each year precisely because they admire him, his mission and his work. God help the visiting doctors if they do not give each poor patient in front of them the same time, care and attention as does the clinic’s founder but word is spreading through the world medical community that this man is for real, a genuine article interested only in helping humanity. Very shy by nature, the doctor does not seek the limelight and will only attend things which will benefit the clinics and the food outreach program, not to glorify himself.

Recently the doctor was singled out in his own country and given an award which was followed up by a piece on his work on the national television network of Ghana. If you have taken the time to read this blog entry to this point, then I ask you to take fifteen more minutes and watch this television footage of the doctor and his mission. You may watch the two parts below. Please listen carefully, because although in English, you need a good ear for the accents.

(If the videos are not appearing, please try refreshing your Internet browser.)

Part One:

Part Two:

Christopher Mertens himself became a patient of Dr. Abdulai and the Shekhinah Clinic when one Sunday morning he became violently ill. The doctor rushed from his home, took a quick blood test and confirmed that he had malaria. It was short-lived and Chris continued his work of assisting the volunteers at the Clinic in many ways, feeding the patients, dispensing medicine as prescribed, occasionally going into the operating theatre to watch the doctor in surgery. He went out of the city into the countryside to deliver food to the leper colonies and in ten weeks lost thirty-five pounds due to the malaria and the change in diet. On the morning he left on the six a.m. bus for Accra and his return to the United States, his colleagues and co-workers came to the bus station to see him off. There are reported to have been many tears for this young white man from the United States quickly known for his smile, kindness, and witness to faith. Dr. Abdulai wrote to me about Christopher and I quote him here: “Yes, Chris has told us that he hopes to become a medical doctor. He will surely make a fine physician of both body and soul, seeing his spiritual approach to everything in the clinic. He does not talk much. He teaches by example, and I am personally touched by his love for God and neighbor. It will certainly be well demonstrated in his medical practice. And through this he may draw many of his patients to a closer relationship with Christ.” This quote tells you and I more about the good doctor than about Christopher.

I hope to meet Dr. David Abdulai before I meet the Lord to thank him for the witness of his life, faith and medical profession. Having spent a number of occasions with Blessed Mother Theresa, I see many of the same qualities of love for the poor and forgotten and while the doctor, as I too would  personally claim to be no saint, he would easily like her in 1979 deserve the Nobel Peace Prize precisely for the witness of his life.

+RNL

The website for the clinic is: http://www.shekhinah-clinic.com/Shekhinah_Clinic/shekhinah_clinic.html. The website is run and monitored by a group of Germans who previously volunteered at the clinic.