Thursday, November 24, 2016

Medicine Man on a Mission at Maryknoll

When Peter LeJacq had his initial application interview at Cornell Medical School, his reply as to why he wanted to pursue a career in medicine has almost assuredly not been heard before or since he spoke to them back in 1976. "I want to be a doctor because I want to be a priest," he told the interviewer.

Since the representative happened to be a psychologist, he might have been inclined to get the young man to the nearest available couch. Instead, he smiled and simply replied, according to Peter, "very interesting." More than 25 years later, interesting would fall far short of describing Father Peter LeJacq of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, headquartered in Ossining, New York. And that's not only because he followed through on the goal that once caused academics to question if his ambition was even remotely pragmatic.

Ironically, some of those same academics have now found themselves linked to the future Father LeJacq envisioned for himself. With a population of 35 million, Tanzania has one doctor for every 40,000 people, as compared to one in 7000 in most African countries and 1 in 400 in America.

Father LeJacq, along with other missioners at Maryknoll, The Weill Cornell Medical School and an ever growing network of donors, has become involved in an intercontinental effort to construct a self-sustained healthcare infrastructure for the people of Mwanza, Tanzania.

In East Africa, the Catholic Bishops of Tanzania – in accordance with the Tanzanian Government – conceived and continue to direct this vision. One that will not only significantly upgrade the Bugando facility in Mwanza, but provide the country with only its 4th medical school. The Bugando Medical facility hopes to provide the healthcare needs of the 10 million residents in its jurisdiction, as the Bugando University College of Health Science (BUCHS) will supply the doctors. In addition, Cornell Medical has taken the role of sister school to BUCHS, which plans on graduating 50 physicians annually.

A serious goal and a serious man but that doesn't prevent him from exhibiting a lighter side in describing how faith from within merged with a calling to heal. "If I didn't have the gift of healing, I'd want to do it the old fashioned way - by going to medical school," he says.   An inkling that came long before the 28 consecutive years of education he needed to achieve it.

Father LeJacq says he was an ordinary Catholic growing up in Manhasset, Long Island when he decided how he would spend his life. In 8thgrade, after reading about the exploits of missionary sister-doctors and also impressed by the joy his parish priest expressed in serving others, Peter wrote a religion paper mapping out his future.  

“Why I want to be a priest-doctor in Africa,” remained a secret between Peter and the Priest, because the Father didn’t want Peter putting any undue pressure on himself, thus derailing his future. Only years later, at Cornell, did Peter reveal his plans. 

This didn’t come as a surprise to his family, but the same reaction certainly could not be expected from the student body at Cornell – even if it had actually been sprung on anyone.  "He's a firmly determined person," says former classmate Dr. Kevin Kelly, but his soft spoken demeanor didn't reveal this or his future plans to the student body. When word leaked out of the Dean's office, Dr. Kelly wasn't alone in assessing that Peter's goals were "admirable but unrealistic."

Although witnessing Peter navigate through academic adversity changed that consideration. "I don't ever remember seeing him ruffled. He seemed to take whatever came along carefree, calm and self assured," he says. Still, others worried of Peter's pace without any regard for himself. Peter allayed their concerns by assuring them that he would have ample time for comfort in heaven.

Peter graduated from Cornell in 1981 and was ordained in 1987 - leaving him little time to question his choices. Occasionally, though, he thought of getting married or just pursuing one career as an American priest or a doctor, but he never did change his schedule of studies. 

A schedule that included assignments in Guatemala and Thailand but Africa never fell off Father LeJacq’s map. In 1984, his introduction to Africa came as a seminarian/doctor in training at a bush hospital in the Serengeti.  Two years later, he found himself among about a dozen physicians in a referral hospital addressing the needs of 10 million people.

This meant delegating a great deal to doctors and nurses in training and implementing the unofficial form of Tanzanian triage. "You do what you can for those that you think you can help - as long as you can stand," he says.

Being an American, though, did not leave him immune to the same medical hardships as Tanzanians. While none was life threatening, he contracted Tuberculosis, Hepatitis and had an almost monthly cycle of dysentery to go with twelve bouts of malaria.

This provides one definition of poverty in Tanzania, but on a daily basis, he says it starts with whether you have water today.  After a bucket brigade to Lake Victoria or the nearest deep well pump, Tanzanians must secure one meal for the day, and for those who can afford it, a dose of malaria prevention medicine.

Still, he found despite the obvious hardships, the people of Tanzania, which is 10% Catholic, have always kept the faith and he was proud to be part of the effort of restoring a badly decaying hospital in East Africa.  Father LeJacq returned home to Ossining in 1996, but most of his thoughts remained back in Tanzania.  

Fortunately, in 1999, when the Tanzanian Bishops enacted their plans to build the medical school, it created an opportunity where the Father's ruminations could have an impact. At the request of the Tanzanian Bishops, through Maryknoll, Father LeJacq took on a role that retroactively was switching him from a missionary priest-doctor of Tanzania to a missionary priest-fundraiser for Tanzania.

Father LeJacq has gone onto raise money through family and friends, including those of his old Alma Matta. When word made its way up the ladder at Cornell Medical, they offered to provide the computers and CD-ROM curriculum to instruct the medical students at BUCHS.

With about 6 million raised, about 2300 family members and friends have become involved in this transatlantic endeavor. Although what might not be apparent through it all is that, "He's just a regular guy," according to local friend Michael Mannix. Put aside the intellect and the strong moral foundation and "You'll find that going out to dinner with him is like going out to dinner with your college buddy or fraternity brother," he adds. A fortunate quality he possesses for the sake of Tanzania.

In fact, his illuminating personality makes Father LeJacq "the main event" when he addresses potential donors, according to Mr. Mannix. Although it's a role Father LeJacq reluctantly takes according to old friend Dr. Kelly. "He doesn't really like publicity," but attention for him ultimately means donations for Tanzania. So in spite of it, "He swallows hard and goes with it because it's the necessary cost of getting the project done," he adds.

And with all he's done for Tanzanians, Father LeJacq also fills an important void here for ordinary Americans. "He's a Christian in action," according to Mr. Mannix, “and a lot of people can't do that because they're doing the everyday activity of raising a family or working a job. So they turn to Peter and say, I can't fulfill what you're doing but at least I can give a helping hand."

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