In Dennis O. Oyieng’o’s native Kenya, it is cultural tradition for doctors to care for the indigent without being paid and for the younger generation to financially support aging parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

“When I first was introduced to Project Access, it struck me as a way to carry on that tradition in America and I was glad to get involved in this cause,” he said.

“I feel very strongly that when you have been blessed, you have an obligation, a sacred duty, to give back,” he said.

Project Access, which coordinates donated medical care for uninsured, low-income residents of Sedgwick County,  was founded in 1999 by United Way of the Plains, the City of Wichita and Sedgwick County.

Dr. Oyieng’o is one of 684 physicians who donate their services to patients enrolled in the program.

Patients can be referred to Project Access by any participating provider or by one of the city’s low-income community clinics when they need specialty care they cannot afford to pay for.

In big demand

As a pulmonologist, Dr. Oyieng’o has seen demand for his specialty skyrocket during wave after wave of COVID-19, which often causes breathing problems.

His interest in pulmonology was triggered early in his career  by concurrent epidemics of HIV and tuberculosis when he was in medical school in Kenya. 

“In Kenya, you become a doctor right after graduation. If you want a residency, you have to pay for it. But in the U.S., you get paid while you learn. So I decided to try to come to the United States,” he said.

He had become friends with Dr. Jane Carter when she came to Kenya with a global organization trying to find new treatments for drug-resistant TB, and she offered mentorship. 

He was accepted at Brown University in Rhode Island where Dr. Carter is a faculty member. His wife, Dr. Jane Kamuran, is also a doctor and wanted to complete a residency in internal medicine. She was also accepted at Brown University.

A big decision

After they completed training, a decision had to be made – return to Kenya for at least two years or go to work in a medically under-served area in the United States.

Kansas is an under-served area and Dr. Oyieng’o had a friend from medical school who was working in Wichita. That friend suggested he come here. 

“I was torn. Originally, we had planned to return to Kenya to work. But financially, I could help my parents and other relatives so much more by staying in the U.S. where I could make a much larger salary,” he said. 

He has witnessed epidemics of tuberculosis, HIV, HINI influenza and COVID-19. He said the first waves of COVID were among his most frightening experiences.

“So much was unknown. Patients came in very sick, and they crashed quickly,” he said. “In the first wave, all the beds filled in two or three weeks. We had to find more beds, open more COVID ICUs. But we had a lot of people recover in that wave. The second bout toward the end of 2020 was the worst. We had three ICUs full of people and just constant death. A patient would come in very sick. We’d put them on a ventilator and then they would crash and die. We’d clean that bed and repeat the process with the next person.  It was almost too much to bear. It reminded me of Kenya at the height of the HIV and TB epidemics when I was certifying 10 deaths a night.”

He said the greatest battle now is getting past the misinformation of a politicized pandemic and convincing patients to take the vaccines that make the disease significantly less deadly.

“I see people who believe all sorts of crazy theories and won’t do  the one thing that can help the most  – vaccination. It reminds me of people in Kenya going to get water from rivers because they believe it’s cleaner than tap water. It’s frustrating.”

Some day, he said, when the kids are all settled – the oldest is in college and the youngest is a high school sophomore – he might return to Kenya. Until then, he said, he’ll continue to send money to his very large family in Kenya and to give his time and his talent at Project Access.