Hero Next Door: Florida DO dedicates career to health care in Kenyan bush
“I have had to learn how to practice medicine the way it would have been practiced in A.T. Still’s time,” says Tonya K. Hawthorne, DO, who is known as Mama Daktari among the Masai. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Hawthorne)
This article is part of a series, The Hero Next Door, on osteopathic physicians who are quietly transforming health care in their communities and beyond.
An area of breathtaking sunsets and night skies, as well as abundant wildlife, the Maji Moto region of southwestern Kenya in East Africa sees few Western visitors save for well-heeled tourists on camera safaris and Christian missionaries. The statuesque, colorfully clad Masai tribespeople who populate this region are known for their hospitality, resourcefulness and strong cultural identity.
Deep in the bush, far from paved roads, electrical grids and modern plumbing and sewer systems, the seminomadic Masai face daunting obstacles to obtaining health care. The founder and president of New Frontiers Health Force, Tonya K. Hawthorne, DO, has made it her mission to ensure that these people have access to the care they need.
In 2008, Dr. Hawthorne established a clinic in Ngoswani, a Kenyan village of a few hundred families living in huts made of dung and sticks. A four-hour drive over dirt roads from the nearest hospital, the Ngoswani Community Health Center serves more than 10,000 Masai, providing urgent care; childhood immunizations; prenatal, obstetrics and gynecological care; HIV testing; trauma stabilization; and treatment for malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases endemic to the region.
“My biggest challenge is getting people to come and see me before they get sick because we can’t do as much afterwards,” says Dr. Hawthorne, a family physician who graduated in 1992 from the A.T. Still University-Kirksville (Mo.) College of Osteopathic Medicine. “For example, I work to educate the traditional birth attendants so they send pregnant women to the clinic not when they’re in trouble but ahead of time.”
One of her most memorable experiences has been delivering six babies in a single month. Some of the expectant mothers went into labor in the middle of the night and walked several miles to the clinic from their huts in the bush.
“In this area, we have elephants, lions, leopards and hyenas, so you can imagine the risks these women faced walking to our clinic in the dark,” says Dr. Hawthorne, who is known by the locals as Mama Daktari. Those who are lucky snag rides on motorcycles, but they also face dangers.
“I can’t tell you how many women have arrived on the back of a motorcycle, in labor,” she laughs.
The Ngoswani Community Health Center runs on solar power because the village lacks electricity. A propane-fueled refrigerator keeps the vaccines chilled. The clinic has two beds for overnight stays, a laboratory with a microscope and a hand-cranked centrifuge, and a full pharmacy. Forced to be self-sufficient, the clinic makes do with the resources at hand.
“In my element, I’m really, really good at recognizing the sick versus the non-sick by looking at the patient as a whole,” Dr. Hawthorne says. “I can’t get X-rays right away. I can’t get very specific laboratory analyses.
“So I have had to learn how to practice medicine the way it would have been practiced in A.T. Still’s time. I have to look, listen and feel.”
On Oct. 1, New Frontiers will open a similar clinic in Empaash, Kenya, an even more remote village not far from Tanzania. “Babies there are dying of malaria and respiratory diseases because there is no access to care,” Dr. Hawthorne says. In addition, a third clinic is in the planning stages.
A mission heart
Spending most of the year in Kenya, Dr. Hawthorne is assisted by a Kenyan clinical officer, with training similar to that of a physician assistant in the United States, as well as volunteers who devote two weeks or more to helping out at the clinic—physicians, nurses, students from various health professions and premeds. She returns to her home state of Florida periodically to take care of organizational business, raise funds and spend time with her elderly parents, sister and niece.
Based in Largo, Fla., New Frontiers Health Force has a staff of four people besides Dr. Hawthorne—an administrator, a director of community relations, a volunteer coordinator and a supply coordinator. Although a Christian nonprofit, the organization is open to people of all religious beliefs.
“The reason I started New Frontiers is that I wanted to make sure that I had an avenue for people from all walks of faith to work together,” says Dr. Hawthorne, an ordained minister who spreads the Gospel and helps build churches in addition to practicing medicine. “We welcome anyone to work with us as long as you have the heart to help people.”
For the past five years, Florida family physician Howard Diamond, MD, has volunteered four to six weeks of his time annually at the Ngoswani clinic, filling in for the Kenyan clinical officer when she is on vacation.
“Tonya Hawthorne is an excellent organizer,” Dr. Diamond says. “She’s good at going around and inspiring people to donate to her organization so she can build clinics and churches.
“She had to figure out everything herself. How do we get the money? Who is going to construct the buildings? How are we going to transport materials? This takes great leadership skill.”
“Tonya is a go-getter for sure,” agrees the organization’s administrator, Terry Barnes, who joined New Frontiers as its only paid employee after many years of missionary work in Papua New Guinea. “It’s hard to keep up with her.”
Barnes loves the sense of community and purpose created by Dr. Hawthorne, who calls the office two or three times a week from Kenya. “At what other workplace could I be paid to begin my day with prayer? We’re all on the same page. We all have a mission heart,” Barnes says.
In the beginning
Dr. Hawthorne says she wanted to be a doctor since kindergarten. Over the years, she became equally passionate about serving God.
While studying religion at a Christian college, she trained as an emergency medical technician and volunteered for the American Red Cross. At age 19, she traveled to the Philippines on her first traditional Christian missionary trip and taught in a school for the deaf.
“I can’t tell you how many women have arrived on the back of a motorcycle, in labor.”
After graduating from college, Dr. Hawthorne completed her med school prerequisites while working as an EKG technician in an Illinois hospital. “I met DO residents there who told me about osteopathic physicians’ more holistic approach to medicine,” she remembers. “Having come from a missions background, understanding that we are spirit and soul as well as body, I knew that osteopathic medicine was for me.
“When I went to med school, I had one intention from the beginning—to become a missionary doctor.”
Florida family physician Jeffrey S. Grove, DO, has known Dr. Hawthorne for more than 20 years. He was one of the attending physicians at Sun Coast Hospital in Largo, where she served her family medicine residency.
“Tonya has always been a unique individual,” says Dr. Grove, the president of the American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians (ACOFP). “I’m not surprised that she has done such great things. She excels at what she does and is a superb ambassador for the osteopathic profession.”
Although she has received humanitarian awards from the ACOFP and the Florida Osteopathic Medical Association, Dr. Hawthorne has been most involved in the Pinellas County (Fla.) Osteopathic Medical Society, which promotes and has made donations to New Frontiers Health Force.
Founded in 1997, New Frontiers provided disaster relief to many countries in distress during its early years. Dr. Hawthorne traveled to Nicaragua and Honduras after Hurricane Mitch, and she served as the medical officer of a NATO-run refugee camp in Albania during the war in neighboring Kosovo. Her outreach efforts took her to remote areas in Haiti, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Morocco, Nigeria and Afghanistan, among other countries.
But in 2005, the organization came to a turning point. “I was in Liberia and broke my foot when I fell into a ‘squatty potty,’ ” she says. “Laid up for a few months, I had time to reflect on where we were going as an organization.” She decided that New Frontiers could make more of a sustained impact by focusing on one medically underserved region.
“The early years gave our organization wide recognition, and I learned how to deal with foreign governments and the logistical issues involved in providing care overseas,” she says. “But all of that was preparation for settling down in one place.
“I said to myself, ‘As much as I’d love to, I can’t manage the health care of the entire world. But wherever I settle, I can make a huge difference.’ ”
More stories about unsung heroes
Read the other articles in our series, The Hero Next Door, to learn what DOs are doing across the nation and around the world to improve health care.
- Serving the underserved in Idaho: How one retired DO changed a community
- Transplant surgeon inspires admiration from patients, colleagues
- DO treats returning troops for TBI, PTSD
- Michigan DO’s passion for surgery spurs four decades of annual missions
- The Hero Next Door: ‘Stubborn’ DO puts patient care before all else
Although she had never been to Kenya, Dr. Hawthorne had a hunch that this was where God wanted her to serve. “In 2006, I went on a survey trip of the country and visited five areas,” she says. “When we pulled into Ngoswani and I saw the people, I knew this was where I was created to be.”
Bridging divides with education
New Frontiers, which hires Kenyan staff for its various projects, is also involved in educational initiatives. The organization is sponsoring the education of four Masai children, including a girl around 12 years old who was about to be married off to a man with four wives.
“We went to the father and said, ‘If we put her in school, will you let us educate her?’ ” Dr. Hawthorne says. “And he agreed to it. She is not going to be a child bride.”
The organization is planning to start a nursery school that will educate dozens of young children in the area. Such early-childhood education is a prerequisite for attending the government-funded primary schools. One long-term goal is that some of the students will eventually pursue medical training and come back home to practice.
Dr. Hawthorne also sees education as the key to persuading the Masai to give up certain traditional practices that are cruel and unsafe, such as female circumcision, which is illegal in Kenya but still common.
“By coming through the back door with education, we can have more of an impact than I could as a single crusader saying, ‘What you are doing is wrong, and it is against the law!’ ” she says.
Dr. Hawthorne, who is learning the Masai language, has deep respect for the Masai people. “I didn’t come here to change them,” she says. “What I bring to the table is quality health care, hope and education.”