Posted 05/06/2008 - 05:43:47pm by Terry Nagel
Dr. Frank Artress' encore moment came at 18,500 feet.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was supposed to be a celebration of his 50th birthday, but it nearly ended in death for the cardiac anesthesiologist from Modesto, Calif.
Struggling for breath in the thin atmosphere near the top of the mountain, with his lungs slowly filling with fluid and his heart racing, the cardiac anesthesiologist was in a bad state. He knew he had the signs of high-altitude pulmonary edema. The terrain was too treacherous to descend the way he had come, and he had to keep going to the top in order to go back down the other side.
“I thought how stupid it would be to die without ever giving anything back to society,” he told San Francisco Chronicle reporter Meredith May, who recounted Artress's story in “Doctor Finds Higher Calling When Death Knocks.”
After barely surviving this ordeal, Artress and his wife, Susan Gustafson, found a new purpose. When they returned home, their sports cars, signed Picassos and swimming pool had lost their allure. Artress told May, "It looked like we were at someone else's garage sale, looking at all their junk."
They sold almost all of their possessions, Artress quit his job, they moved to Africa and he became a "bush doctor" who serves impossibly poor people in Tanzania. “You can save someone here with $1.50 worth of antibiotics," he told May. "The heartbreak of Africa is that people don’t have access to that most basic care, so they are dying of completely preventable diseases.”
Artress learned to practice tropical medicine by trial and error and via the Internet. After working for two years in a clinic, he and Gustafson stocked up their Land Rover and began treating patients at orphanages and tribal villages. They later bought a 20-foot bus that they turned into a mobile clinic.
With the help of friends, relatives and volunteers, they formed the Foundation for African Medicine and Education in 2004 and raised enough money to build what will be the first hospital in Karatu, a city of 180,000. Now under construction, it will also include the city's first freshwater well.
They're a long way from Modesto, but Artress and Gustafson show no signs of going back. "The medical need here is simply overwhelming," Artress told The Chronicle.