Kathleen Debiak, accompanied by fellow medical workers and their Masaii warrior guide, walked into a school compound in Kenya last month and was greeted with enthusiastic singing, dancing, clapping and general rock-star mania.
“It would be like dropping Justin Beiber in the midst of prepubescent girls,” the Ahwatukee resident recalled.
“We were immediately engulfed by parents hugging and kissing us and saying ‘thank you, thank you!’ We were later told this is a group of people who live so far out they rarely have anyone come see them. Some of those people had rarely seen a white person, others maybe only one in their lifetime.”
This was just one of the experiences Debiak and fellow health workers experienced on their visit to rural Kenya.
The 325-student school was the larger of two that Debiak, a traveling physician’s assistant, shared her medical skills with —thanks to the sponsorship of the Make a Difference and Me to We foundations.
Five other physician assistants and nurse practitioners joined Debiak and representatives of the sponsoring Make A Difference Foundation and CompHealth on the trip — which required three separate jet journeys and one 12-seater prop plane just to arrive to their destination.
And from there, it was all four-wheel-drive lorries.
“The recruiter I work with at CompHealth, a healthcare staffing company, nominated me for this opportunity. CompHeath annually supports humanitarian and medical missions through the Make a Difference Foundation, Debiak explained. “In this case they partnered with the ‘Me to We Foundation’ to organize the medical mission to Kenya.”
A former science teacher — who studied to be a physician assistant after her first philanthropic journey to Guatemala years ago — Debiak was joined on this trip by eight other physician assistants and a nurse practitioner.
She’s also worked as a medical volunteer in Brazil and Thailand.
It all began with a call for help at her church nearly three decades ago.
Her response changed her life’s trajectory.
“In the late ’80s I was living in Everett, Washington, working as a science teacher, primarily with low-income middle school students. My church was approached by a nurse seeking donations and volunteers for a Guatemalan orphanage,” Debiak said.
“She encouraged me to join her for six months as a volunteer at an infant and small children nutrition recovery center associated with a Jesuit Hospital in Guatemala,” Debiak she added. “This mission prompted me to pursue a career in medicine, thus I studied to become a Physician Assistant through the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.”
In 2014, under the sponsorship of Rotary International, Debiak went to work in Brazil to help upgrade a local community center in a poor section of the city of Natal.
“There I provided medical screenings whereby patients were then directed to the appropriate care facility,” she said.
For this week-long medical mission to Kenya, Debiak had a plethora of roles.
“Through this medical program I worked alongside the Kenyan medical providers at the Baraka Hospital in the Maasai Mara region, on the southwest edge of Kenya,” said Debiak. “We provided direct medical care and in return received an understanding of the medical necessities within the Maasai people.
“In addition, I was immersed in Maasai culture, and by working alongside the Maasai providers we shared best practices and medical education.
Debiak said a highlight of her trip to Kenya was her work at the two rural elementary schools.
The first school visited by the medical personnel was a half-hour journey by four-wheel drive to a school of 125 children.
“This school was supported by the We to Me Foundation. They had better school uniforms and they had newer classrooms,” she said.
“At the next school we saw and treated 325 students in a single visit,” said Debiak.
This more rural school was both miles and worlds away from the first one the group visited.
“Their school was just one long strip of a clapboard room with a dirt floors, holes in the ceiling and no doors, but those kids were just so freakin’ happy,” said Debiak.
And obviously, so were their parents and even a local dignitary who came to greet the medical team.
“I was the second one off the lorry and I couldn’t see the person in front of me because I was so engulfed,” she said. “All of us were presented by the local dignitary with a yellow tin cup, and were given plastic leis for around our necks. I kept wondering, how are they affording to do this for us?”
The medical personnel did a health assessment on the 325 children, and winnowed a smaller group of 50 children whom they felt needed additional care, or a trip to a local clinic.
All the students received de-worming pills.
During her exams and by observing the adults she said she saw a lot of back and neck issues. She later determined a daily or multi-daily trip to a river one kilometer away to fetch water was the cause.
“They carry 25- and 50-pound containers of water and sometimes walk to the river five to seven times a day,” she said, shaking her head. “Some of their houses are built of mud and that requires much more water and even more trips to the river.”
Debiak hasn’t limited her volunteerism in other countries, but here in the U.S. as well.
“Earlier in my medical career I worked five years with the Indian Health Service on the Navajo Nation at Fort Defiance and Kayenta in northeastern Arizona,” Debiak said. “The Navajo people I served were some of the most genuine, wonderful and generous people I’ve ever met. It was an honor to be part of their community, though as an outsider.”
Providing health care services allows an inside look at other cultures, she said.
“Meeting people as a service provider, you get an unfiltered version of different cultures, something most people never experience. When you work on a person-to-person basis you soon learn we are all one people,” she said.
“And by working with the underserved in underdeveloped areas I receive a real appreciation of what health care is about. This is real clinical medicine, provided to people who truly appreciate your efforts.”
When not volunteering her skills, Debiek works with CompHealth as a traveling physician assistant, currently working for Family Health Centers of San Diego. Even here, her empathy is a part of her work.
“I’m working at a clinic serving mostly refugees and immigrants from East Africa, as well as the homeless and mentally ill,” she said.
Working as essentially a temporary employee has allowed Debiak time to travel, and mostly to help those in need. Through her work she has used her medical talents in northern Wisconsin, Kansas, California and the Navajo Nation, among others.
She has worked with the military at Fort Stewart, Georgia, and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base as well as in Flagstaff, Tucson, San Manuel, Yuma, Sacaton, Casa Grande and the Indian Health Center in Phoenix.
Her current goal is to cut back on traveling for work and to find part-time employment opportunities closer to home, preferably in family practice and urgent care.
“I enjoy working with the underserved and feel it’s my duty to help the less fortunate,” said the 60-year-old Debiak. “Am I done traveling? For work, yes; for personal enrichment, absolutely not!”