A Retired Physician’s Legacy: Tropical Health Alliance Foundation Helps Heal Impoverished People of Ethiopia
by Jiggs Gallagher, 08/01/2017
Redlands, CA–There are thousands of non-profit institutions set up to help people all over the world. Many of those thousands are providing medical help. This is the story of one Seventh-day Adventist physician’s journey in starting such a group.
Larry L. Thomas, MD, DTM&H, graduated from La Sierra University in 1970, spent a year at England’s Newbold College and a stint as a student missionary in Hong Kong along the way. Then he earned his M.D. at Loma Linda University in 1974.
He plied his trade as an emergency medicine physician for 34 years, with a few breaks here and there. One such hiatus took him back to England, where he enjoyed his time at Newbold. In 1988 he received a diploma in tropical medicine from the London School of Tropical Medicine.
“I wasn’t particularly interested in practicing that kind of medicine at the time,” he says, “but I was tired of long nights working in the ER, and this break helped clear my mind and gave me a new perspective on the world.”
Another turning point in his life, which also took place in London, was his newfound friendship with evangelical preacher, writer and thinker John Stott. A lifelong relationship with Stott helped Thomas grow spiritually and taught him to think more clearly about the needs of people in the wider world.
“In 1991 I was invited to go to a service at All Souls Church, where Stott was preaching. I had no idea the man was famous, or anything about him. Stott made a call for dedication at the end, and I was moved to answer it.”
When he returned to the states, he started a group with a mission to send American physicians to the London school to be trained in the field, and to go out for three-month rotations around the world. This successful venture led him to decide, after retiring from emergency medicine about eight years ago, to start a non-profit corporation. It became known as the Tropical Health Alliance Foundation (www.thaf.org).
“Since my father was a Midwestern farmer, I encapsulated my philosophy for the foundation with the acronym SPUD—Simple, Practical, Understandable and Doable,” Thomas says. “We wanted to find simple solutions and changes that would transform lives and make them better.
These simple solutions included things like providing shoes to rural people in Africa, to prevent PODO (short for podoconiosis), a foot disease of poverty affecting 4 million Africans in which soil penetrates the skin and swells the legs. The simple solution is providing sturdy shoes to impoverished people! The foundation also helps to build safe and pure systems to capture and keep rainwater pure for healthy drinking.
Eventually, the foundation began to do medical procedures, including women’s surgeries to correct uterine prolapses and vaginal and rectal fistulas, caused by girls taken as brides as young as age 13, who can’t push a baby through childbirth because their growth has not been completed. “These people encounter health challenges that we would never think of in the Western, developed world,” he says.
In recent years, the foundation has focused its attention on cataract surgery in Ethiopia. Here is Thomas’ explanation: “Natural aging causes cataract blindness in aging people in Africa, as it does throughout the world. But the tradition in Ethiopia is that the blinded middle-aged or elderly person is entitled to select a grandchild or other young relative to lead the person around and help them earn a living and provide care for them. “What happens is that the young child or teen must give us her schooling, and thus loses a chance to escape poverty and prepare for a meaningful life for herself.
“So by organizing medical volunteers to go on short-term trips to conduct laser surgery, we save two lives—the patient is restored to sight, and can take care of him or herself, and the young person returns to school and prepares for the future.” Thomas makes the return to school a condition of performing the simple $50, 10-minute cataract surgery.
Blindness is rampant in Ethiopia. Just over 900,000 of the more than 6 million Ethiopians are blind due to cataracts. Thomas organizes two six-week trips a year, taking physicians and medical residents to conduct the surgery. James Guzek, MD, an ophthalmologist, was the first to make the trip in 2010. The regular, twice-a-year trips began in 2013.
“When we began seven years ago, we had a goal to restore the sight of 20,000 people in Ethiopia by the year 2020. As of June of 2017, we just passed the 16,000th restoration! So at our current rate we are within sight of healing 25,000 people by 2020.”
He works primarily in the Wollega region of Ethiopia, where there is precisely one ophthalmologist in a region with 3 million people. That physician is Samuel Bara Imana. Thomas also works with a Catholic nun, Sister Evelyn, to organize the program. His efforts were jeopardized recently when Sister Evelyn’s order planned to move her to another country, and Dr. Imana went to Addis Ababa, the capital, to teach at a university.
“I appealed to Sister Evelyn’s superiors to allow her to continue her work in Ethiopia, and they changed the order. So she continues with us.”
Thomas receives support from the sole Roman Catholic congregation in Loma Linda, the Church of St. Joseph the Worker. He recently received a donation of $17,000 from the church. “Our effort has been an interfaith venture from its beginning, and that opens us up to cooperation from many who want to see positive changes.”
“I can’t tell you what satisfaction this word brings me and those who work. To see the happiness on the face of someone whose sight is restored is worth the labor we undertake to accomplish this work,” says Thomas.
Thomas’ web site states that “(The foundation) subtracts nothing for our administrative costs–100% of your donation goes to charity. You may ask how we do it. Like all non-profit organizations, we do have administrative costs, however, we raise funding for these expenses independently so that ALL of your donation goes directly to our projects.”
THAF’s snail-mail address is P.O. Box 1270, Loma Linda, CA 92354.