Fred Ochieng’ is probably used to the blinding pace of his life by now. His busy year—does he have any other kind?—hit a high point when he graduated from the Vanderbilt University School of
Medicine with the Class of 2010 and crossed the stage at Langford Auditorium
and into the arms of his older brother Milton. Just one month earlier, Ochieng’ had matched for an Internal Medicine/Pediatrics residency at Vanderbilt for the
next stage of his medical training.
But Fred Ochieng’ has much more on his plate than many medical school graduates. The week of
graduation, he worried about finding time to help Vanderbilt second-year
students with an Emphasis Project. He placed a quick call to locate supplies to
bring to Kenya after graduation, and his eyes widened when somebody asked how
he would find time to spend with his family who had travelled so far to see
Being pulled in so many directions at once is just the cost of doing business
for this young man. He says he and his brother view themselves as working to
serve the needs of the residents of the Kenyan village of Lwala. It is a
calling the Ochiengs chose 13 years ago when they decided they had to do
something to help their friends and neighbors.
So, Fred Ochieng’ is a Nashvillian, a Vanderbilt resident, a colleague to his co-workers at the
Medical Center. Then there’s his other life—the one centered around his home village of Lwala, Kenya.
The two are related, of course. Just two weeks before his graduation, Fred
attended a cocktail party at the same Langford Auditorium where he graduated to
celebrate three years of success for the Lwala Community Alliance, the
non-profit organization that Fred and Milton Ochieng’ began in 2007. The Alliance was formed when Fred and Milton determined they
would carry out their late father’s dream of opening the first health care clinic in Lwala.
At that cocktail party in May, the Ochiengs announced plans for a $265,000
maternity ward and expansion that will triple the size of the clinic in Lwala.
The work does not stop.
This past summer Fred and Milton have been working in Lwala to set the wheels in
motion for the clinic expansion.
Motivated by tragedy
There has simply been no time to stop since a day 13 years ago.
Fred was 15 when his friend, Ben, lost his mother. Ben’s family lived just a couple of homesteads away from the Ochiengs. One night in
1997, Ben’s mother, Patricia, was in labor. The baby was in breech position and stuck.
Patricia’s life was in danger. Frantic family and friends loaded her into a borrowed
wheelbarrow and raced her toward help.
“But it was six miles just to catch the transportation, and the nearest clinic
was almost 20 miles away. She died along the way,” Fred recalled.
Early in the morning, her body was wheeled back, and the Ochiengs awoke to the
sound of wailing women.
“That’s when it really sank in for us,” said Fred. “We needed proper medical care in our village, and we thought maybe this was
something we could try to do.”
That started Fred and Milton down the path to schooling in the United States and
toward a career in medicine. The Ochieng’ brothers’ energy captured many hearts in the U.S. and by 2007, they had raised $27,000 to
build their clinic. That story was told in a documentary film titled “Sons of Lwala,” whose premiere was featured in the March 2008 House Organ.
Today, that clinic sees 1,200 patients a month and employs an all-Kenyan staff
of 25: nine medical professionals and 16 auxiliary staff.
A new goal
Success has a way of bringing more needs to the surface. In December 2007, Fred
and Milton were visiting Lwala, working a shift at their new clinic. It had
been a busy morning and they were preparing to break for lunch when their old
friend Ben’s wife came in.
“She was very pregnant and in labor,” recalled Fred.
Incredibly, history was repeating itself. Ben’s baby was in breech position and his wife was in trouble. Milton, a fourth-year
medical student, and Fred a second-year student, ushered the suffering woman
into a tiny space designed to be a kitchen. It was the only room that could be
used for delivering a baby. They had an obstetrics textbook for guidance.
“We opened it up and I started reading aloud,” said Fred.
Between poring over the pages in a section about breech birth, and calling an
Ob/Gyn friend in Tampa, Fla., the brothers managed to deliver the baby safely
into the arms of their friend’s wife. It was the ending that should have been 13 years before. Mixed with
tears of joy were feelings of inadequacy.
“We must have looked like we knew what we were doing,” Fred smiled.
But the birth of a beautiful and healthy baby girl renewed hope for the
Ochiengs, and gave them a new goal.
In the next three years, Fred and Milton would finish medical school at
Vanderbilt while participating in speaking engagements all over the country,
relating the unmet needs in Lwala. The Lwala Community Alliance worked to raise
the funds for an expansion and maternity ward. Once again, the brothers touched
hearts and opened wallets.
“Women will have a place to labor and deliver in privacy. Right now when they
come to the clinic to deliver, they put a curtain up in the kitchen space and
deliver right there,” Fred said.
From Kenya back to residency
For the Ochiengs, it’s simple. The needs arise; they find a way to meet them.
“We picture ourselves as a multi-dimensional community service,” Fred says.
The institution they started supports village children through secondary school,
offers micro-financing to villagers, brings more clean water and electricity,
has a sanitation project that will put 10 latrines at the nearby school.
The Ochiengs never stop to look at what they have accomplished. They are far too
busy. While the brothers were on their most recent visit to Lwala, they worked
as the attending physicians. They tended to their 93-year-old grandmother who
became critically ill with pneumonia, and struggled to save a 6-month-old baby
dying from dehydration brought on by malaria. They managed to save both, and
still found time to purchase an ambulance and outreach vehicle with a Ronald
McDonald House Charity grant. The vehicle will travel to schools and churches
with nurses and educators who can do everything from teach about prenatal care,
to provide children with immunizations.
Despite the relentless pace Fred doesn’t appear to have run out of steam. Upon his return from Lwala this summer, with
exhaustion on top of jet lag, Fred took part in Vanderbilt’s boot camp for incoming residents. He said working at the Lwala clinic is
excellent preparation for his Med/Peds residency at Vanderbilt. The program is
among the most rigorous offered at Vanderbilt, but he feels comfortable he can
Fred has accomplished much, but he is the sort of clinician who, instead of
working for a living, lives to serve through his work. He feels the weight of
the challenges ahead with all the uncertainty and inadequacy that come with
every success, but expects no less. Something brand new is being created in
“The challenges have been worth it. People have somewhere to go when they get
sick. For the very first time, women are getting prenatal care and their
children are getting vaccinations,” he said.
While he was in Kenya, Ochieng says his old friend Ben’s daughter came in for one of those well-child visits. She is now 2-and-a-half
and doing great.