A boat delivers mosquito nets in the remote Lake Tanganyika region. (Photo by Joel Frushone)

Healing vessel

Amy Lehman envisions treating patients from isolated African villages aboard a hospital boat.

Amy Lehman was at a district hospital in Tanzania when a pregnant 16-year-old walked in, bleeding. Her undelivered baby was already dead. The girl had had an obstructed labor in Kala, a tiny village bordering Lake Tanganyika. "She was trying to deliver, and the baby [got] stuck," Lehman says. She had walked and ridden buses for three days, hemorrhaging, trying to reach the hospital to have a Cesarean section.

By the time she made it there, "it would have been hard to save this woman's life if she had been at the University of Chicago medical intensive care unit." Without blood available for a transfusion, she died.

In the future, Lehman, AB'96, MD'05, MBA'05, imagines telling a very different story: the girl goes to the local medical dispensary, who calls a hospital boat on the lake. "Then we can pick up the woman or girl in obstructed labor on an outboard motor boat," she says, "and bring her back and do a C-section, and the baby lives and she lives."

In 2008 Lehman and Tanzanian-born Alwyn Andrew-Mziray, AB'94, MD'00, IMBA'00 (who died unexpectedly in February), cofounded the Lake Tanganyika Floating Health Clinic, a nongovernmental organization that hopes to provide medical care to the millions of geographically isolated people of Lake Tanganyika, the world's longest freshwater lake—people from Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Tanzania, and Zambia.

The boat has not yet been built—the clinic first must raise $6 million for construction. But when finished, it will be a floating regional hospital, staffed by a crew of 30–35 doctors, nurses, and ship staff. The region's understaffed and undersupplied health centers and medical-supply dispensaries will refer patients to the clinic, which could either pick people up on motor boats, "like a water ambulance," or airlift them using a helicopter, which could land on the 200-foot-long boat. The organization also plans to help ramp up the first-line health centers, providing the medical supplies and manpower to deliver primary care and prevention services.

Creating a mobile hospital makes sense for several reasons, says Lehman, who first saw the dire state of the basin's medical care while visiting the lake in 2007. First, given the region's ongoing conflicts, hospitals "have been overrun by rebel armies, and all their assets have been taken." Second, the lake is the best way to reach lakeside villages. "Anybody who's worked with lake communities," Lehman says, knows that boats are "culturally integral. It's not only that it solves true logistics problems in terms of how you reach populations; it's that populations recognize this as how they do things."

Lehman travels to Africa every few months to do medical outreach for the lakeside communities. To get to the southern Congo side, she takes three flights—Chicago to London; London to Johannesburg, South Africa; and Johannesburg to Lubumbashi, DRC. She then either drives for two-and-a-half days to the lake, gets a mining company to take her in a charter, or hops on a six-to-12-seat humanitarian flight. No matter where in the basin she's trying to go, it's several days of travel from Chicago.

Lehman never imagined she'd be working with African ministries of health, learning Swahili, and building a ship in eastern Africa. "Years ago, what I was planning on becoming was an academic general thoracic surgeon," Lehman says, not "thinking about naval architecture and engineering, or how to build a ship in the middle of a landlocked lake in sub-Saharan Africa."

As she raises the money to build, Lehman is helping the villages in other ways: providing mosquito nets to prevent malaria, still the top cause of death in the region (its grip has lessened in much of sub-Saharan Africa), training local community health workers, and planning to offer surgery to repair fistulas, prenatal care in the Congo and Tanzania, and treatment for eye diseases in Burundi. She's made deep connections in the villages—one local even named her baby son "Dr. Amy Lehman."

Lehman's main goal is to reach more villages, helping as many people in the basin as her crew can. With her team, which includes the vessel consultant Brian Bartlett, MBA'09, as well as stateside fundraisers and African coordinators and consultants, Lehman has been focused on fundraising for the outreach projects. This fall she will launch a capital campaign to raise money for the ship. "If somebody plunked down [the $6 million] today"—not including an ideal endowment of $25–$30 million—"we could have the boat built in probably a year and a half, max," says Lehman, who lives with her son, Max, a Lab Schools senior, in Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood.

"Everything is planned out," Lehman says. The clinic has local partners, and Lehman and her crew know where to get the raw materials. To design the ship, they've hired Alion Science and Technology, which does business with the Department of Defense, and they will use a Tanzanian shipbuilding organization. "We know everything about all this stuff," says Lehman, "so it's [just about] pulling a trigger."