DECEMBER 15, 2007


Beyond on-call

Calgary GP builds Malawi health from
ground up

Dr Chris Brooks gives his all to help
HIV-ravaged African nation

(Top left) The Lifeline Malawi entrance; (Top right) founder Dr Chris Brooks being examined by Hannah, a young patient; (bottom) and clinic staff
All photos courtesy of Lifeline Malawi

If Dr Chris Brooks were running a for-profit hospital, his picture would be plastered on the front page of every business magazine as CEO of the year.

So rapid has been the growth of the private clinics he founded and built in Malawi that in seven years he has gone from dispensing medicines from the back of a Toyota truck to building two permanent clinics in the impoverished south African country. He employs 80 full-time paid staff, has 50 volunteers in Calgary and across Canada and treats a mind-boggling 100,000 patients every year on a shoestring budget.

Dr Brooks — who along with his wife Heather and their now 12-year-old daughter, Chloe, left a comfortable medical practice and life in Calgary after hearing a Malawi missionary speak at First Assembly Church about nine years ago — says the last year has been remarkable.

"One year ago, we saw our one-hundred-thousandth patient in the history of Lifeline. This year — one year later — we saw another 100,000 patients. When I think about that I have to pinch myself and say, 'Am I hallucinating?' But I'm not. We're now treating 100,000 patients a year."

And saving tens of thousands of lives.

This is all done in buildings he and his staff have had to build themselves, with bricks they make themselves and with a total of 10 nurses, three medical officers (who can perform medical procedures despite not having a medical degree), a pharmacist and field director, Pat Laforet, originally from Toronto.

Lifeline also has hired mechanics to keep their ramshackle fleet of vehicles working on the bumpy roads of Malawi, as well as construction workers to build staff housing and additional rooms onto the Ngodzi and Kasese clinics.

The 69-year-old British-born doctor says the organization's plans for growth are organic, flowing directly from the immense needs of Malawians.

"If I had the capacity in funding and people, we could expand our healthcare interventions in Malawi — and that is the desperate cry we hear all the time," he says.

"I have to stand before these people who have tears in their eyes and who plead with me, 'please open a clinic near us,' but we just can't do it."

Patients at the Family Planning Clinic
All photos courtesy of Lifeline Malawi

Visiting Calgary for his annual fundraising tour that will have him deliver dozens of speeches to churches and service clubs across Alberta and Ontario, his blue eyes sparkle when he points out an important milestone for Lifeline — in November it hired its second doctor in a country with only about 100 permanent physicians for a population of 16 million people.

"So now we have two doctors," says Dr Brooks. "One is me, old and decrepit, and the other is Dr Haldon Njikho. He's 36 and a Malawian, full of vim and vigour and a compassionate heart." By hiring another doctor, Dr Brooks now has more time to fundraise and meet with Malawi government officials.

His big hope this year is to raise enough money in Canada — about $130,000 — to buy an x-ray machine, something considered utterly basic in Canada but that he has been forced to do without all these years.

The organization also needs hundreds of thousands of dollars more to pay for drugs, staff, well drilling, and so on.

The organization, governed by a volunteer Canadian board of directors, has also approved the building of a $150,000 maternity wing at the Ngodzi clinic, which a Calgary couple has pledged the money for.

"In Canada there are six maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births. In Malawi there are 1,800 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births," says the good doctor.

But the big killer is still HIV/AIDS.

As a result of last year's fundraising campaign in Calgary, enough money was raised to purchase two CD-4 counters — machines that help determine if an AIDS patient needs to go on life-saving anti-retroviral drugs, something Lifeline started distributing, with the help of Samaritan's Purse, RockPointe Church and Health Partners International Canada, long before other NGOs were doing so. This helped Lifeline to arguably become the most well-respected medical NGO in Malawi.

"We used to just make a clinical decision, but thanks to the CD-4 counters we now know that we were underestimating the need for anti-retrovirals," says Dr Brooks. Fully 20% to 23% of the patients Lifeline treats are HIV positive. "It's a pandemic."

When one considers all of this was accomplished under what the Cambridge-educated general practitioner calls "the factor of nine law," it's even more astonishing.

"In Malawi, it takes three times as long to accomplish one-third as much as it would take in Canada," he says. "The electricity goes out, the shipment doesn't arrive, the phone wires get stolen, there's been no cement in the country for the last two months and on and on it goes. But it's all worth it."

"If Canadians could meet the people of Malawi, who are so gracious and kind, even though they are so sick, they would be moved to help."

Donate online at or send a tax-deductible donation to 210, 1289 Highfield Cres. SE, Calgary T2G 5M2.

Reprinted by permission of Sun Media (Calgary Sun)



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