By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
INDEPENDENCE — He had to see that the place that was equipping his hospital was real, and not too good to be true.
“I had to see that it came from a real place, not from outer space,” said Dr. Patrick Frimpong, medical director of La General Hospital in Accara, Ghana.
For two years, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Eucharist began including the Ghana hospital on the list of places around the globe to which they send 40-foot long shipping containers packed with up to 20 tons of donated goods for free distribution.
Through their own networking, the sisters have obtained just about anything a hospital would need through donations from area hospitals, clinics and nursing homes that are updating their own equipment and supplies.
This includes hospital beds, pillows, sheets, operating tables, and even some over-the- counter medications that are sent to Dr. Frimpong without cost.
“It is very, very helpful,” he said. “We are in dire need of everything. You name it.”
Every bed in his 166-bed hospital has come from the Franciscan Sisters.
“Before, people had been sleeping on the floor,” Dr. Frimpong said. “Now, they have a bed to sleep in before they are discharged.”
During his trip to the Kansas City area, Dr. Frimpong toured area hospitals and was astounded by what he saw.
“How do you compare apples to oranges?” he said.
Although Ghana offers free medical care to all citizens, the country is too poor to equip its hospitals. So great is the demand that Dr. Frimpong also shares whatever the sisters send him with other hospitals and clinics, particularly those in the countryside.
But the country’s greatest health need is not just equipment, he said. It is education. Too often, the people of Ghana will not seek medical attention until it is too late, and simple infections that could have been treated easily if detected earlier become fatal.
“You could take a hospital in America and put it in Africa, and it would make no difference. What we need is mass education,” Dr. Frimpong said. “The most important thing is the delay in the decision to come to the hospital, and the delay in getting to the hospital.”
Every bed in the hospital is always full. In addition to that, the hospital’s 15 doctors, including Dr. Frimpong, will see between 200 to 300 new patients who have somehow made it there, but many of whom may already be too ill to save.
It’s a life in which his heart breaks daily.
Dr. Frimpong began to cry as he told of women going into pregnancy-induced seizures and comas at the hospital caused by hypertension that could have been treated with proper pre-natal care and routine doctor visits through pregnancy.
“You have to make the choice to take the life of the mother and save the baby,” he said.
An OB/GYN by training, he has saved many babies — and many mothers.
“I work 24 hours,” Dr. Frimpong said. “Even when I go home, I don’t turn my (cell) phone off. I may be called in the middle of the night for an emergency.”
Last year, Dr. Frimpong said, more than 4,500 babies were delivered at La General — one approximately every two hours — and many of them with complications because of the lack of pre-natal nutrition and care.
“The infant mortality rate is very high,” he said.
In addition to the high number of infant deliveries, the hospital sees patients with infections from injuries, as well as water-borne, food-borne and insect-borne diseases unheard of in the United States.
“At this moment, there is an outbreak of cholera that we are dealing with,” Dr. Frimpong said. “Those who get cholera are the poor and the uneducated. They come from areas where medical facilities are non-existent.”
For all the doctors at La General, sleep might be a catnap on a table. Should Dr. Frimpong manage to get home to his own bed, it will often be well past midnight. And people still know where to find him.
“If they know your house, they will come in the middle of the night,” Dr. Frimpong said. “I don’t blame them. It is better than not having anybody to go to.”
Sister Andrea Martin, who heads the Franciscan Mission Warehouse, said that last year alone, 21 shipping containers or truckloads of donated supplies weighing nearly 300 tons with an estimated value of more than $3 million were shipped to five countries and to Native American reservations in two states.
As Dr. Frimpong was visiting the warehouse, Sister Andrea Kantner was preparing a shipment to Tanzania that included a completely refurbished tractor, cultivator and planter donated by Cook Tractor of Clinton, Mo.
Depending on the distance traveled, the containers cost upwards of $10,000 each to pack and ship, she said.
Sister Andrea said the sisters are in the process of incorporating the mission warehouse into a separate 501(c)3 charity to receive tax-deductible donations to help with the costs, which last year totaled nearly $85,000.
Finding donations of supplies or the people who desperately need those supplies isn’t difficult, Sister Andrea said. Raising the money to get those supplies shipped is the hard part.
“If we had more money coming in, we could do a shipment a week,” Sister Andrea said.
Dr. Frimpong said that the Franciscan Sisters in Independence are one of the very few groups in the world regularly sending medical equipment and supplies to Africa.
And by far, he said, they are the best.
He noted that a government official in Ghana recently convinced one European agency to end one shipping container of medical supplies and equipment, then called the nation’s news media when it arrived.
“It was to show how much the government was helping the people,” Dr. Frimpong said.
Meanwhile, the Franciscans without fanfare have sent him six shipping containers in the past two years, including two more that will be waiting for him in Ghana.
“Every one of my containers has been better than the government’s container,” he said.
And he shares freely. “Whatever is needed, I give free of charge,” Dr. Frimpong said.
They are his people, Dr. Frimpong said. As exhausting as his career is, he said it is his honor to serve them.
“My mother was a midwife,” he said. “So I took it from her and never looked back. I have no regrets at all.”
He also said that God blessed him with talents that he must share.
“I am very fortunate to go this far in my life,” he said. “You see children in Ghana who do not have access to anything — education, not even food or water.”
Dr. Frimpong also said he doesn’t have to wait for a reward in the next life. The people he serves are his reward every day.
“When I see the amount of money paid to doctors here, it is very generous,” he said. “But there are other types of compensation.
“In Ghana, they know me. They respect me. Sometimes they give me their food,” Dr. Frimpong said. “And I have so many children named after me.”