By Nick Perry
Reprinted with permission from the Seattle Times
Redmond doctor Alan Kelley is a maverick when it comes to helping people in need. He doesn't have
time for the bureaucracy and politics of big relief organizations, he says. So, in Seattle, he sets up
kettles of chicken soup on the sidewalk in Pioneer Square each Christmas Eve, then enlists his family
to help ladle out meals to the homeless.
He brings the same hands-on approach to Sudan, where during the summer he flew into the country's southern
Blue Nile region on a chartered plane without the host government knowing, rented a dump truck from a
rebel commander and set up makeshift health camps with his daughter and eight other volunteers. Then he
and his group immunized 1,250 children against potentially deadly diseases such as diphtheria, whooping
cough and measles in the space of seven days. They spent another two days immunizing children in Kenya.
It's a high-adrenaline approach that, according to Kelley, allows him to slip in and out of forgotten
corners of the globe without attracting widespread attention, reaching people missed by larger organizations.
"My attitude is: If there's a problem, fix it," he said. "There are people suffering and dying."
Those who have seen him in action praise his work. But some bigger, more established relief organizations
remain circumspect about people on humanitarian missions who go it alone in places like Sudan a country
where this month the Bush administration declared genocide is taking place.
This summer's effort was Kelley's eighth trip to Sudan and his 12th trip to impoverished countries around
the world. He started a nonprofit organization six years ago Medical Teams Worldwide which essentially
is made up of a Web site, a small office, storage space and $143,000 in donations in the last fiscal year,
according to federal tax filings. That money is used mainly for plane fares, bags of oatmeal-based food
supplements, camping equipment and medical supplies.
Kelley uses solar-powered fridges to keep vaccines cool, and he treats people suffering from diseases
that do not require major surgery. He has dealt with millipede infestations, open sewers and sweltering
heat. This past summer, one man rode his bike 70 miles crossing a battle zone for malaria treatment,
Other times, the doctor has had to watch children die in his lap from dysentery.
Once he used an intravenous drip to revive a child who was so ill he had fallen into a coma. One of the
toughest decisions is choosing who most needs the limited food supplies, he said. The poverty is so extreme
that many people wear shredded clothes or nothing at all, and have swollen bellies and other signs of
"You have all these eyes looking at you, people with starving kids in their arms, and you are deciding
who gets it," he said. Kelley, 49, lives in Woodinville and has practiced family medicine in Redmond since
He said he is driven to help by his strong Christian faith and a hunger to stamp out injustice. He was
deeply influenced by two months he spent working at a hospital in the Congo while a student at the University
of California, Davis, School of Medicine. He saw the enormous problems and needs of Africa.It was an experience
that also made him realize he couldn't commit to becoming a full-time missionary because of the difficulties
he would face raising a family in Africa, he said. He has four children.
Daughter Lorraine Kelley, 23, a first-year medical student at the University of California, Los Angeles,
has traveled with her dad on humanitarian trips for six years.
"The experiences I've had really have shown that you can do an incredible amount with basic medication
and nutritional supplements," she said. Another volunteer who joined Kelley in Sudan during the summer
was John Jefferson of Dallas, who works for a telecommunications company. Jefferson said he heard about
Kelley's organization through his church pastor, who Kelley had met on an earlier trip to the Sudan. Jefferson
helped pack equipment, give immunizations and distribute food.
He said he was struck by the complete lack of infrastructure such as roads, stores and telephone poles
in Sudan, and by people's "beautiful" nature despite their struggles. He said he felt relatively safe.
"To me, I think there is almost more danger sometimes in going in under an umbrella like the Red Cross
or U.N., because they are more political," Jefferson said. Other volunteers have included doctors, nurses,
a soccer coach and a Buddhist fitness trainer. Kelley said he wants people who are self-reliant, physically
fit and have a "heart for the poor."
Negatives of ad hoc group
Bill Essig, vice president of international programs at the Northwest Medical Teams relief organization,
said he doesn't know Kelley's work firsthand, but knows there are many others like him trying to help.
"It's hard for me to pass judgment, but generally speaking, when you are conducting an immunization
campaign, most agencies like to see that as part of some larger, comprehensive plan that ensures people
are not getting improperly immunized or immunized twice," Essig said. "It's also important that humanitarian
efforts not favor one political group over another," he said. That takes homework and planning. "It's
the do-no-harm principle," Essig said. "We do not want to be exacerbating tensions between groups that
are having conflict."
Essig acknowledged that relief agencies cannot get to all areas, and access in Sudan remains a problem
because of fighting and rain. "We know there are groups of people that are cut off from assistance," he
said. Kelley said that his years of experience in Sudan help him navigate potentially dangerous political
dealings with the Sudanese People's Liberation Army. Working with rebel leaders helps him get to people
who could not be reached through government channels, he said.
He gives paperwork to those he immunizes, he said, although he knows he deals with a transitory population.
It is better to run the risk of immunizing someone twice which doesn't pose a significant health threat
than not at all, he added. While Kelley said he is confident that the rebel commander, whom he pays
for the truck rental and other services, will protect him and his group, he takes precautions anyway.
He has a satellite phone and a Global Positioning System with the location of nearby airstrips pre-programmed.
He has other escape plans, and each of the volunteers travels with several days of food and water packed
for a quick exit. What he fears more than bullets, Kelley said, are the mosquitoes and illness. He has
contracted malaria several times but has been able to treat it. Help welcomed Diane Bennett, executive
director of the relief agency Servant's Heart, said Kelley's help is welcome and needed in Sudan.
Kelley once helped her group quickly get 20,000 doses of antibiotics to halt a whooping cough (pertussis)
outbreak in southern Sudan, she said. "He stopped any number of kids from dying," Bennett said. "He has
been very compassionate." Relief agencies large and small tend to help each other on the ground, sometimes
unofficially, she said. "The problems are so, so many in Sudan and there is so little infrastructure,"
Bennett said. "Anybody who is working in Sudan is doing good, and everybody else appreciates that and
Kelley is already planning another trip to Sudan in April, and is working on sending a solarpowered operating
room to Uganda for use by local surgeons there. After each trip, he sends a newsletter out to about 300
supporters, which helps raise money for the next trip. Until the next trip, he is trying to fit back into
life in the U.S. "I do have a problem readjusting to the opulence, the choices, and the waste of food,"
he said. "It's hard to eat the same amount as before I left. I feel guilty."
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