At a time when people are fleeing from South Sudan and the U.S. government is urging Americans to stay away, an Omaha doctor is making plans to go there.
Dr. Joseph Dumba, a family practitioner at Methodist Physicians Clinic, said his annual medical mission trip is on, probably in March. But because of the instability in South Sudan, he won't take a large group as he usually does. Instead, he'll be accompanied by just one or two other doctors.
Dumba, who is from South Sudan, said they will spend about two weeks in the southern town of Kajo Keji. They will treat the ill in a country where there are 150 doctors for some 10 million people and will bring medical supplies — including lifesaving basics such as Tylenol — to a part of the world in desperate need.
“It's simple, simple things,” Dumba said. “You get malaria, your fever hits 105, you're dead. You're throwing up, there's no medication for nausea, you're dead. If you have no IV fluids, you're basically dead.
“Every situation is just a death sentence when you get sick in South Sudan.”
The dire health needs are further complicated by the fighting that broke out last month, pitting political leaders against each other and dividing the South Sudanese army. Peace talks have appeared to make little progress.
The conflict has displaced tens of thousands of South Sudanese. The U.S. government has evacuated more than 1,000 people, including U.S. citizens and other foreigners living in South Sudan, which had become an independent nation in 2011.
Friday, the U.S. State Department issued its strongest warning against travel to South Sudan and recommended that any U.S. citizens still there “depart immediately.”
The State Department reduced its embassy staff and said consular services would be provided in neighboring Kenya.
This is sadly déjà vu for Dumba, who is all too familiar with his nation's strife.
Dumba, 45, was born amid civil war in Sudan. He came of age during another round that continued until 2005. The decades of conflict, combined with famine and disease, took the lives of 2 million people, including some of Dumba's family members, and displaced 4 million people — including him.
Dumba left Sudan on foot and walked 120 miles to Uganda. He returned to fight for the Sudanese People's Liberation Army.
“Basically, I felt it was my duty,” he said. “Being a refugee is not a simple thing. It creates a lot of frustrations. (I figured) I might as well go back and fight.”
Dumba later left Sudan again, this time for Kenya, where he spent two years in a refugee camp. He was among the first Sudanese refugees to be resettled in the United States.
Dumba was sent to Tacoma, Wash., and soon enrolled in community college. He then finished his bachelor's and medical degrees at the University of Washington in Seattle. From there, Dumba went to Rochester, Minn., and Des Moines for a residency program run by the Mayo Clinic.
He interviewed for a job in Omaha, liked the city and moved here in 2004.
In 2007, after Sudan's civil war finally came to an end, Dumba organized his first medical mission to his homeland.
He took more than a dozen medical professionals. There were no paved roads. Because of land mines, it was unsafe to veer off the army paths.
Each year since, Dumba has led groups of 25 to 30 medical professionals and others from Omaha to Kajo Keji. They pay their own way and volunteer their time. They cram whatever personal items they need into a carry-on bag and use their checked luggage — as many as the airlines will allow — to stuff with medical supplies. Hand-delivering medical supplies is faster, cheaper and more efficient than shipping them.
In 2010, Dumba started a nonprofit called the Healing Kadi Foundation.
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By 2011, with the help of his church, Covenant Presbyterian, Dumba had raised more than $100,000 to ship a so-called Clinic in a Can to Kajo Keji.
The clinic is three metal shipping containers stocked with medical equipment that serve as an X-ray and operating room, a pharmacy and lab, and an exam room. The clinic is named for the late Marilyn Miller, a Covenant member. It opened last summer and employs 14 people, whose salaries are paid by Dumba's foundation.
Last year, Dumba's Omaha team included KETV journalists Julie Cornell and Andrew Ozaki, who created a documentary called “Mission to Africa.” It begins with Cornell intoning that South Sudan is a place “of contrasts, a place of hope.”
There was a lot of reason last year to feel hopeful.
Life in South Sudan was still hard, but so much had improved so quickly. According to Dumba, the land mines had been cleared, and people were farming. In the capital city of Juba, hotels went up. The airport was getting another terminal. Foreign embassies, including one for the U.S., were sprouting.
Juba had gone from “little grass huts scattered all over the place,” he said, to a city on the move.
Then came Dec. 15, when the fighting began anew.
Dumba said he was shocked.
“Taking the country back to square one is just tragic,” he said. “These are brothers, basically, going at each other.”
The fighting means he can't take as many people in March as he normally would, even though the clinic is in a safer part of South Sudan. Travel would be too complicated.
If the country can regain stability later this year, Dumba said, he may be able to return with a larger group.
Why doesn't Dumba, a father of three, also wait for the fighting to quell?
Because babies die of fever. Because six weeks ago, a pregnant woman who came to the clinic died because the clinic had run out of IV fluids.
Because the battles in the north mean more people are fleeing south to a fragile medical system that in no way is prepared.
So Dumba knows he can alleviate some suffering by working as a doctor in South Sudan for two weeks.
And perhaps most important, he can help restock the clinic shelves by getting on a plane with suitcases crammed with Tylenol.
Omahan is collecting money, medications for coming trip
Dr. Joseph Dumba's coming journey to South Sudan is a hard one for most of us to imagine making.
Still, you don't have to go that far to help.
Dumba wants to raise $25,000 to buy bulk-rate antibiotics, anti-malarial and anti-typhoid drugs. He is collecting funds through his foundation, Healing Kadi. Donation information is on the foundation's website: healingkadi.org.
He is also collecting sealed nonprescription medications in pill form (gels melt and liquids are too heavy). He needs anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen, anti-fever medications such as acetaminophen and anti-nausea drugs.
Medications can be dropped off at his Indian Hills clinic at 8901 West Dodge Road and at Covenant Presbyterian Church, 15002 Blondo St.