For years, Dr. Stephen Sokol split his time between Maine and developing nations. People needed medical care here, sure, but in Sierra Leone, children were dying in droves from diseases preventable in America; in Kenya people risked their lives every time they drank the water. Sokol couldn’t turn away.

This summer, he’ll return to Kenya as part of his own charity organization “Madaktari I Kenya,” or “Doctors in Kenya” in Kiswahili. It’s how the 74-year-old will spend his retirement.

Name: Stephen A. Sokol, M.D., DTMPH

Age: 74

Town: Lewiston

Married/single/relationship: Married

Job: Assistant professor of geriatrics, University of New England

How did you get interested in medicine in developing nations? I cannot explain my interest other than by saying that I wanted to be where the need was greatest.

Where have you done this work? I have been in many countries working predominately in refugee and internally displaced person camps. I have worked in Sierra Leone, Darfur, Kosovo, Kenya, Tanzania on the Burundian border, Ethiopia, Russia near Chechnya, Thailand on the Myanmar border, Guatemala and Peru.

You’ll be going to Kenya in August. Why Kenya? I have been there several times and I have several colleagues there that I have worked with and respect greatly. Together we have identified an area on Lake Victoria that has no physician in the public health facilities, two hospitals and a dozen clinics. The area is large and has 162,000 inhabitants, a high infant mortality and abject poverty, and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is one of the highest in the world.

How long will you be there? I will be there essentially permanently with periods back home to this wonderful state.

Why start your own organization? Over the years I have found it frustrating to work for large organizations. When I recognize a problem, I want to correct it. Often there is that rather rigid “chain of command” that one has to negotiate through and I do not have much tolerance or the time for that.

How do you afford your travel, time and supplies? The expenses at this point are covered by my colleagues and myself. We have applied for a tax-exempt status and with that we hope to get donations and grants. (www.madaktariikenya.com or on Facebook at Madaktari I Kenya.)

What is the biggest need in Kenya? The expenditure for health care in Kenya is $66 per person yearly. Here it is over $7,000. Additionally in Kenya there is minimal infrastructure, including water and sanitation. Most people get their water from polluted rivers and from Lake Victoria, which is also significantly contaminated along the shore, contributing to the high incidence of infectious diseases.

What do you hope the most to accomplish there? I will be teaching in the local College of Medical Sciences, which trains nurses and clinical officers (similar to our physician assistants). We hope that by introducing them to the area health facilities, they will choose to stay and work with us. We are also trying to rebuild parts of the local hospital, large sections of which have been condemned but are still being used as there is no alternative. We are additionally involved with an area orphanage trying to provide both health care and education.

How does it feel to return to Maine after being in Kenya? When I first started it was very difficult. For example, I could not go into a supermarket with its endless aisles and goods, nor could I tolerate being with groups of people. This lasted months and occurred several times but is better now. And the dreams. One of my first assignments was in Sierra Leone, and there, the loss of children from disease was appalling. There were also so many amputees including children — wounds inflicted by the various rebel groups. These pictures remain and will always remain in my mind. It still goes on, as in the Congo. I can only try to do my small part in the area that I have chosen.


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