A mission trip to Kenya and a challenge to “just do it” inspired Amy Hehre to claim Africa as her second home and its sick orphans as her responsibility. Steve Kaufman shares her story.
Winnie is a six-year-old African child who came to the OVI Children’s Hospital in Migori, Kenya, with stage-four cancer. There was a tumor emerging from her eye.
I found myself saying that I wanted to give life-saving treatment to needy children who couldn’t otherwise access it.
In the custom of areas like this, Winnie’s program of treatment would likely have been to make her as comfortable as possible until she succumbed to the disease. That, however, was not to be this young girl’s fate.
Instead, Amy Hehre, a Kentucky-born Physician’s Assistant who runs the free hospital, insisted on a trial program of chemotherapy for Winnie. The results were miraculous. Today, Hehre reports that Winnie is in complete remission. The tumor in her eye is gone. And Winnie has found a new home, as well, living in the Hehre household.
Case studies like this are not isolated at OVI, even though it’s merely a year old. Hundreds of children a month, from Kenya and neighboring Tanzania and Uganda, are brought in for treatment. Some have common childhood diseases that are treated routinely in the U.S. But many have malaria. Or epilepsy. Or AIDS. Some are brain-damaged. Or cerebral palsy victims. These are children, like Winnie, who would have been denied any treatment and hidden away in their homes, because of cultural stigmas about the disabled.
All are orphans. Because that was Hehre’s mission, from the time she first flew into Nairobi, Kenya’s mostly modern and sophisticated capitol city of more than 3 million residents, and then took a bumpy 14-hour car ride due west to Migori, near Lake Victoria in the tropical, sugar-belt wetlands of the country.
“It was dirty, it smelled bad and there was nothing to do – not a single restaurant in town,” Hehre says today, six years later. “It didn’t have the mountains or grandeur of so much of Africa. There was not a lot of wildlife around.”
And yet, she fell in love – with the people and, especially, the children.
“I knew I couldn’t be anywhere else,” she says. “It was a life-changing moment.”
But why choose Kenya? “I don’t think I chose Kenya,” she says, “I think Kenya chose me.”
Of course, “Why Kenya?” is only one of the questions that come to mind when you hear Amy Hehre’s story. “What made you do all this in the first place?” is number one on the list. Here’s the back-story answer.
Amy is from tiny Somerset, Kentucky (south of Lexington, in Pulaski County), and initially was pursuing a broadcasting degree at Western Kentucky University. But she was also studying speech pathology, “because I had a passion to work with stutterers.”
As she tells the story, she was at a campus ice-breaking event, just before her junior year, and pulled the topic, “What do you want to do with your life?” from a hat.
“I found myself saying that I wanted to give life-saving treatment to needy children who couldn’t otherwise access it.” And someone in the room asked her, “Then why aren’t you pursuing it?”
She Googled “medical opportunities in Africa” and, that Thanksgiving, announced to her family that she was going to Kenya. “I said there was no use trying to talk me out of it. I’d already bought the plane ticket.”
After graduation from WKU, she enrolled in the three-year Physician’s Assistant program at the University of Kentucky’s College of Health Sciences. “Once I’d found my mission, I couldn’t see waiting 15 years until I completed med school, internships and residencies.” Also, there are PA equivalents in Kenya, called clinical officers, so she anticipated a good fit there.
Her partner in all this is her husband, Rob, himself a PA. They had met when they were 15, counselors at a summer church camp. He, too, felt a calling for a medical mission. They’ve already adopted two of their patients (Moses, six, and Lily, three) and have now made room for Winnie, as well.
Orphans, abused and abandoned children, and NICU survivors are the most needy, which is why Hehre made that her specialty in Kenya. “In the past, people here dropped those children off at orphanages, and walked away,” Hehre says. “I’m constantly having to explain that OVI is not an orphanage, it’s a hospital for orphans.”
She notes that, in Kenya, low-budget orphanages aren’t 100-bed dormitories, they’re “a woman in a hut with mats in the dirt.”
OVI is now a 60-bed facility, with ER and outpatient services, and a staff of 60, all Kenyans, including two MDs. There’s also a medical laboratory and a physical therapy program, and she wants an OR, as well.
And if you think she’s finished, you haven’t been paying attention. There are regions throughout Africa, and even India, that need resources like hers.
“I’m a big dreamer,” Hehre says. And because she is, others are getting a chance to dream too. <