Juliana Otieno’s life is a metaphor for the potential of Africa. Born in a small village, she combined a quick mind, stubborn nature and compassionate heart into the drive to become a doctor.
When I met her, she worked in the area where she grew up as the only pediatrician in the local hospital, a facility with little equipment and no running water. She is a lifeline to improved care in an area where one of every five children will die before they are five years old.
If God’s mission for us on earth is to serve, then she has done so under the harshest circumstances. She overcame the obstacles of a society that devalues women to become a pediatrician and she returned to her home to use her skills in improving the lives of the impoverished.
Her work was noticed by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and they have worked with Dr. Otieno in assessing the healthcare needs of western Kenya. She is a link not only to the health of children in her area, but to the very survival of children in all developing countries through her keen insights and shared knowledge with the CDC.
The CDC, one of the world’s preeminent healthcare organizations is one of the south’s leading ambassadors, sending Atlanta scientists around the globe to fight disease. The relationships built in these countries bring a touch of southern hospitality into the remotest regions on earth and in turn bring back to Atlanta the richness of life in a diverse world.
As a child in rural Kenya her teacher asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her response, in keeping with gender roles in most developing countries: a nurse. Recognizing the heart of a remarkable child the teacher asked her, “why not be a doctor?”
I spent two days on rounds with Dr. Otieno for the CDC Foundation to document child survival efforts. In my work I have met many amazing people, but what I saw in her was the spark of greatness.
While I was there the hospital had no running water and meager supplies. I watched as Dr. Otieno put her faith, compassion and medical skills to work, touching and treating each child. Touching, she said, was part of healing.
At the end of a twelve-hour shift, she returns to her modest home, where she established an after hours clinic. Families bring their children, sometimes walking for days, to be treated by Dr. Otieno.
Her drive for knowledge and commitment to healthcare is unparalleled and she is now the director of the hospital. She works tirelessly, contributing to the world through her efforts in a small town in western Kenya, working side by side with CDC scientists at their research station in Kisumu, fighting for child survival everywhere.
I am planning a return trip to Kenya this summer. The passage to Kisumu is a long and exhausting one; seeing Juliana again is a treasure worth the effort. She is a link in this southern heart to what the world has to offer and I am a better person for knowing her.
Dr. Juliana Otieno is a living testament to the power of faith. The battle she is fighting is one of Biblical proportions and she faces enemies of disease, pestilence and ignorance with strength grounded in her Christian beliefs. She spreads that faith through her actions, touching each child, each family and every colleague with hands that serve God.
Photographs: Dr. Otieno in the pediatric ward; the hospital waiting room; Dr. Otieno attending a sick child.