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Sunday, September 26, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Maverick's mission to Sudan: no time for bureaucracy

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Medical Teams Worldwide


www.mtww.net

Redmond doctor Alan Kelley is a maverick when it comes to helping people in need.

He doesn't have time for the bureaucracy and politics of big relief organizations, he says. So, in Seattle, he sets up kettles of chicken soup on the sidewalk in Pioneer Square each Christmas Eve, then enlists his family to help ladle out meals to the homeless.

He brings the same hands-on approach to Sudan, where during the summer he flew into the country's southern Blue Nile region on a chartered plane without the host government knowing, rented a dump truck from a rebel commander and set up makeshift health camps with his daughter and eight other volunteers.

Then he and his group immunized 1,250 children against potentially deadly diseases such as diphtheria, whooping cough and measles in the space of seven days. They spent another two days immunizing children in Kenya.

It's a high-adrenaline approach that, according to Kelley, allows him to slip in and out of forgotten corners of the globe without attracting widespread attention, reaching people missed by larger organizations.

"My attitude is: If there's a problem, fix it," he said. "There are people suffering and dying."

Those who have seen him in action praise his work. But some bigger, more established relief organizations remain circumspect about people on humanitarian missions who go it alone in places like Sudan — a country where this month the Bush administration declared genocide is taking place.

This summer's effort was Kelley's eighth trip to Sudan and his 12th trip to impoverished countries around the world. He started a nonprofit organization six years ago — Medical Teams Worldwide — which essentially is made up of a Web site, a small office, storage space and $143,000 in donations in the last fiscal year, according to federal tax filings.

That money is used mainly for plane fares, bags of oatmeal-based food supplements, camping equipment and medical supplies. Kelley uses solar-powered fridges to keep vaccines cool, and he treats people suffering from diseases that do not require major surgery.

He has dealt with millipede infestations, open sewers and sweltering heat.

This past summer, one man rode his bike 70 miles — crossing a battle zone — for malaria treatment, Kelley said. Other times, the doctor has had to watch children die in his lap from dysentery. Once he used an intravenous drip to revive a child who was so ill he had fallen into a coma.

One of the toughest decisions is choosing who most needs the limited food supplies, he said. The poverty is so extreme that many people wear shredded clothes or nothing at all, and have swollen bellies and other signs of malnutrition.

"You have all these eyes looking at you, people with starving kids in their arms, and you are deciding who gets it," he said.

Kelley, 49, lives in Woodinville and has practiced family medicine in Redmond since 1986. He said he is driven to help by his strong Christian faith and a hunger to stamp out injustice.

He was deeply influenced by two months he spent working at a hospital in the Congo while a student at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine. He saw the enormous problems and needs of Africa. It was an experience that also made him realize he couldn't commit to becoming a full-time missionary because of the difficulties he would face raising a family in Africa, he said.

He has four children. Daughter Lorraine Kelley, 23, a first-year medical student at the University of California, Los Angeles, has traveled with her dad on humanitarian trips for six years.

"The experiences I've had really have shown that you can do an incredible amount with basic medication and nutritional supplements," she said.

Another volunteer who joined Kelley in Sudan during the summer was John Jefferson of Dallas, who works for a telecommunications company. Jefferson said he heard about Kelley's organization through his church pastor, whom Kelley had met on an earlier trip to the Sudan.

Jefferson helped pack equipment, give immunizations and distribute food. He said he was struck by the complete lack of infrastructure such as roads, stores and telephone poles in Sudan, and by people's "beautiful" nature despite their struggles. He said he felt relatively safe.

"To me, I think there is almost more danger sometimes in going in under an umbrella like the Red Cross or U.N., because they are more political," Jefferson said.

Other volunteers have included doctors, nurses, a soccer coach and a Buddhist fitness trainer. Kelley said he wants people who are self-reliant, physically fit and have a "heart for the poor."

Negatives of ad hoc group

Bill Essig, vice president of international programs at the Northwest Medical Teams relief organization, said he doesn't know Kelley's work firsthand, but knows there are many others like him trying to help.

"It's hard for me to pass judgment, but generally speaking, when you are conducting an immunization campaign, most agencies like to see that as part of some larger, comprehensive plan that ensures people are not getting improperly immunized or immunized twice," Essig said.

It's also important that humanitarian efforts not favor one political group over another, he said. That takes homework and planning.

"It's the do-no-harm principle," Essig said. "We do not want to be exacerbating tensions between groups that are having conflict."

Essig acknowledged that relief agencies cannot get to all areas, and access in Sudan remains a problem because of fighting and rain. "We know there are groups of people that are cut off from assistance," he said.

Kelley said that his years of experience in Sudan help him navigate potentially dangerous political dealings with the Sudanese People's Liberation Army. Working with rebel leaders helps him get to people who could not be reached through government channels, he said.

He gives paperwork to those he immunizes, he said, although he knows he deals with a transitory population. It is better to run the risk of immunizing someone twice — which doesn't pose a significant health threat — than not at all, he added.

While Kelley said he is confident that the rebel commander, whom he pays for the truck rental and other services, will protect him and his group, he takes precautions anyway. He has a satellite phone and a Global Positioning System with the location of nearby airstrips pre-programmed. He has other escape plans, and each of the volunteers travels with several days of food and water packed for a quick exit.

What he fears more than bullets, Kelley said, are the mosquitoes — and illness. He has contracted malaria several times but has been able to treat it.

Help welcomed

Diane Bennett, executive director of the relief agency Servant's Heart, said Kelley's help is welcome and needed in Sudan.

Kelley once helped her group quickly get 20,000 doses of antibiotics to halt a whooping cough (pertussis) outbreak in southern Sudan, she said.

"He stopped any number of kids from dying," Bennett said. "He has been very compassionate."

Relief agencies large and small tend to help each other on the ground, sometimes unofficially, she said.

"The problems are so, so many in Sudan and there is so little infrastructure," Bennett said. "Anybody who is working in Sudan is doing good, and everybody else appreciates that and facilitates it."

Kelley is already planning another trip to Sudan in April, and is working on sending a solar-powered operating room to Uganda for use by local surgeons there. After each trip, he sends a newsletter out to about 300 supporters, which helps raise money for the next trip.

Until the next trip, he is trying to fit back into life in the U.S.

"I do have a problem readjusting to the opulence, the choices, and the waste of food," he said. "It's hard to eat the same amount as before I left. I feel guilty."

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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