A Seattle-area doctor who traveled to South Sudan in November on a relief mission found himself the only physician for some 5,000 refugees.
The bombs sounded like thunder, a storm unfurling on a sunny day.
Dr. Alan Kelley, from Woodinville, was working in stifling heat near the border between Sudan and South Sudan in November, listening as a tenuous peace agreement between the two nations dissolved about 15 miles away.
On Nov. 12, his first day in the Doro refugee camp, he instantly became the only doctor for 5,000 people.
Daily, hundreds of refugees — some who had walked for a week while bleeding from wounds suffered in the aerial bombing of crowded marketplaces — gathered around him in this town 20 miles from the border in the Upper Nile state, waiting for treatment. Every day, as word about Kelley got out, the waiting masses grew.
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Kelley, a Group Health physician in Lynnwood, is not the only doctor who travels abroad to treat the impoverished, nor is he new to such excursions: He estimates his November trip was his 20th.
Yet the organization he founded and directs, Medical Teams Worldwide, is unusual in at least one respect: It’s basically a one-man operation, focusing on areas that may be too small or remote for larger agencies to serve.
Since the agency’s founding in 1998, Kelley has watched Sudan morph from a country battling a decades-long civil war to one divided in two. A 2004 Seattle Times article described his work during the civil war, when he immunized thousands of children under the watchful eyes of a rebel army.
Though South Sudan became a country in July, its problems are far from over: The two countries remain in conflict over oil and land, and refugees along South Sudan’s northern border have become targets for low-flying bombings allegedly carried out by the Sudanese Air Force.
So it was, on this trip, that Kelley would treat shrapnel wounds for the first time. Over the course of five days, he would help as many as he could, treating bombing victims, as well as those afflicted with illnesses such as malaria and dysentery.
It all stands in stark contrast to his everyday life as a family doctor who treats mostly elderly patients. Yet, he insists that there isn’t much of a difference between the two.
“I can go from one theater to another. It’s just nicer and cleaner here,” Kelley said. “From a medical standpoint, pain is pain. Suffering is suffering.”
Still, he goes into each trip with eyes wide open to the dangers of working in a place like South Sudan, as well as Rwanda, where, in 1994, he worked with refugees of the Rwandan genocide.
In South Sudan, the bombers aiming at refugees are improvised, Soviet-made Antonov planes that can be heard before they arrive. The same type of plane reportedly is used by the Sudanese Air Force, which denies involvement in the bombings despite repeated U.N. condemnation directed at the Sudanese government.
Though Kelley recognizes the danger, he downplays it. He says he knows how to deal with a bombing: Camp under trees to hide the tents. If bombs are coming, lie on the ground and open your mouth to keep from holding your breath, protecting your lungs from the force of the blast.
“It’s not like U.S. carpet-bombing or anything,” he said. “It’s a U.N.-designated area. The chances of getting bombed are like one in 10, one in 20. There’s a risk. I don’t think it’s that high, but it’s real. That’s kind of how I deal with it.”
Driven by faith
Through his organization, Kelley and a few volunteers travel to parts of Africa and Latin America two or three times a year. His passion for helping others started early. He grew up in a nominally Christian family in California, but a trip to France at age 17 introduced him to a group of missionaries who inspired in him a lifelong dedication to his faith.
Kelley’s first trip to Africa was in 1983 when he was in medical school. He moved to the Seattle area to start a medical practice a few years later, ultimately ending up at Group Health, which provides some medication to Kelley at an at-cost rate.
Though his tax filing labels the group Christian, and faith is a big part of his motivation for the trips, Medical Teams Worldwide is not a missionary organization; he says he doesn’t have much time to spread Christianity when he’s treating so many patients. Previous volunteers have been Buddhist and Jewish, he said.
“God’s given me various gifts,” Kelley said of his faith’s role. “These are some of the gifts and the tools I have.”
Kelley said he also is driven by a desire to help children. It’s difficult for him to see them eat leaves, some with hair turned red from malnutrition. He tries to deal with his emotions after he returns home, he said.
Though Kelley used to run the organization from an office, donations dropped with the recession. He now works on logistics for upcoming trips from home, before and after seeing patients from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The relief organization took in about $96,000 in contributions in 2009-2010, according to a tax filing, down from about $173,000 raised in 2007-2008.
Kelley receives most of his donations through a newsletter with about 600 subscribers; the last, which featured graphic pictures of young children wounded in the bombings, brought in about $10,000.
Each trip to Africa costs about $30,000, which covers such expenses as medical supplies, camp necessities and airfare to and from Nairobi for Kelley and a few volunteers. It also covers the cost of chartering a plane to travel between Nairobi and Doro.
Just last week, refugees near Doro were bombed again, earning another rebuke from the United Nations. Despite the ongoing problems — and dangers — that refugees face there, Kelley said, he has to believe his trips make a difference, and he’s already booked tickets for another, longer trip in March.
“These people suffer and die in the darkness,” Kelley said. “If I don’t go, who’s gonna go?”
Lark Turner: 206-464-2761