At a bustling primary care clinic in rural Guatemala, Gautam Desai speaks with a mother and her daughters. The girls, ages 2 and 4, are two of nearly 300 patients that Desai and his volunteer team will examine in an auditorium turned makeshift medical center in the mountain town of San Juan Alotenango. Desai’s team includes 11 doctors and 39 med students from Kansas City University, where he’s a physician and family medicine professor, and the room in the town’s municipal building buzzes with a noisy collision of conversations, crying babies, and rambunctious kids.
Desai speaks calmly above the clatter. His two young patients have colds, so he prescribes nasal spray, vitamins, and Tylenol. Such common remedies may seem unremarkable, but for many rural residents in developing countries like Guatemala, Tylenol is a big deal. Nasal spray is a big deal. Anything you might buy at your local drug store is a big deal, from sunscreen to reading glasses. In fact, the team hands out around 100 pairs of reading glasses a day during this two-week annual trip, and it can be a life-changing moment, particularly for tradespeople such as weavers who hand-sew huipils, the colorful, patterned garments worn by many Guatemalan women.
“If they can’t see, they can’t work,” Desai says.
Desai has made these simple yet significant gestures to patients in multiple countries. Over the past 20 years, his teams have treated roughly 40,000 people, not just in Guatemala, but through twice-a-year clinics in Kenya and a once-a-year clinic in the Dominican Republic. Here in Guatemala, his American students and professionals see up to 400 patients a day with conditions ranging from arthritis to rashes.
“I think working abroad re-centers us on why we’re passionate about medicine.” –fourth-year med student Yana Klein
Despite his compassion and his passion for healing the sick, the modest, mellow Desai, who looks like David Duchovny in scrubs, initially resisted a career in medicine. He had seen the long hours worked by his father, aunt, and multiple family members, all of whom were physicians.
“My dad would never take a vacation,” says Desai, who was born in India but moved to Michigan with his family at age 5. “We’d have to force him to come to graduations and stuff like that.” Determined to enjoy life, Desai traded his pre-med studies at Boston University for a degree in psychology. He was contemplating a career in real estate when his brother, also a physician, encouraged him to consider osteopathic medicine. Desai was intrigued by this more holistic approach to healthcare that focuses not simply on treating symptoms but understanding how patients’ lifestyles and environment affect wellness.
“I liked the idea of doing more than just giving people a prescription,” says Desai, who is director of the honors track in global medicine at KCU. “I liked the idea of educating patients. I liked the idea of giving patients skills to help themselves and examining everything else in their lives — not just seeing that the patient has headaches, but maybe they get headaches because they’re depressed or because they don’t like their work situation or their home situation.”
After earning his medical degree from Michigan State, he joined KCU in 2000. When a dean learned that he spoke Spanish, he was invited on a KCU trip to Guatemala. Soon he was leading the trips, which are supported by DOCARE International, a nonprofit focused on healthcare in under-resourced communities. For a man who was once worried about working too many hours, leading trips in three countries — while also seeing patients and supervising residents at KCU’s Family Medicine Residency Program — is a heavy load.
“He’s working on these trips year-round,” says volunteer Sarah King, a med student who graduated in May 2020. “There’s so much organization that goes into it. But he does a good job delegating to students to get us involved. He has fostered community and camaraderie.”
Students work hard. Each morning, they lug supplies from their hotel in the Spanish colonial city of Antigua and load large cases onto buses for a roughly three-hour round-trip drive. The clinics are held in a different town each day. Students talk to patients, obtain their history, and conduct a physical exam. A physician or physician’s assistant then meets the patient and reviews the findings. Together, they develop a treatment plan.
The students are well supervised — “We’re not like, ‘Hey, go take that appendix out,’” Desai jokes — and they obtain invaluable hands-on experience in unique circumstances. One student talked excitedly on the bus ride back to Antigua about using a portable ultrasound to examine a large ovarian mass. Students also improve their Spanish and help people who often have never seen a doctor. Those opportunities are a big reason why med students attend KCU, Desai notes. Working abroad will not only make them better doctors, many students say, but it has encouraged them to work in underserved communities at home.
“I think working abroad re-centers us on why we’re passionate about medicine, and with the lack of resources here, it makes us use our brains in a different way,” says Yana Klein, a fourth-year medical student and one of the trip’s student leaders.
Another benefit: Students are exposed to a level of poverty unlike anything they’ve seen in the U.S. The encounters make them more empathetic. Klein mentions her interaction with a 96-year-old widow who arrived at a clinic with age-related ailments. “I offered a little bit of help with her pain,” says Klein, but just as important to the patient was the human contact. “We talked about her anxiety and sadness. It didn’t seem like much, but she started crying because she was so grateful. Just giving someone a little bit of time and kindness can go a long way.”
That emphasis on empathy, Desai believes, will remain with students as they pursue their medical careers. And he has experienced locals’ gratitude as well. For each of his annual visits to Guatemala, Desai spends about $30 for 30 baby chicks, paid for by KCU staff who contribute to his “chicken fund.” The volunteer team provides two chicks to various local patients who farm or know how to raise them. The chicks will grow to be egg-laying chickens, providing families with eggs, which provide both a nutritional boost and a reduction in food costs (some families also sell the eggs).
“God sends the American doctors here,” one 70-year-old patient says through a translator after receiving two chicks.
Desai’s natural humility makes him cautious about basking in the adulation of patients, but still, it feels good to be appreciated. “Sometimes we go back to a village and someone recognizes us and says, ‘Hey, I’m following your advice,’” he says. “Those moments make me happy.”
Ken Budd is the author of The Voluntourist and the host of 650,000 Hours, an upcoming web series on travel and real-life American heroes.
This article is featured in the September/October 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: Training station: Dr. Desai and a med student treat a young patient in Kenya. “I liked the idea of giving patients skills to help themselves,” he says. (Courtesy Gautam Desai)
With no electricity, no internet, and no running water, New Year’s Eve in Mali is the African opposite of New Year’s Eve in Manhattan. Here, in the remote village of Dagabo, villagers sit quietly by an open fire, sharing cup after cup of the local tea. And yet John Alex seems content in this foreign land. Back home in New York City, he’s a successful financial adviser, but his passion is the United Aid Foundation, an international disaster relief organization that he founded in 2005. After watching Alex for a week at the dawn of 2020, I have no doubt that he prefers a dusty village with chickens wandering in and out of huts to a stuffy cocktail party with Park Avenue elites.
“I get anxious when life isn’t being lived,” he tells me later. So about 15 minutes before midnight, Alex changes the mojo, as he puts it. American volunteers have been sitting on one side of the fire, with Malians on the other. Alex now switches sides, sitting on a log and handing a cigarette to a new friend.
“How you doin’, brother,” he says.
A villager gives him tobacco to chew. They chat. When midnight strikes, we all smile and shake hands. It’s a John Alex moment. If the world ever holds an election for global mayor, Alex will win. Easily. People are drawn to this guy, and I’ve seen it at every stop in Mali. Shopkeepers, teachers, children — they all flock to the burly, charismatic dude in the camouflage pants, camouflage bandana, and gray shirt with his unofficial UAF motto: “Do good, don’t die.”
The second part of that motto is no joke. Mali earns the same U.S. government travel warnings as countries like Syria and Iraq. UAF came to Dagabo to assist a school after being invited to the region by Alex’s longtime friend Abigail Hayo, who leads an organization called One Global Village. The village is primitive by Western standards, but compared to UAF’s usual locations, Dagabo is the French Riviera. In 2005, Alex and his new organization rebuilt three Sri Lankan villages following a tsunami. After Hurricane Katrina, it provided much-needed medical supplies and water to local doctors in Louisiana. UAF performed surgeries and rebuilt homes after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, brought food and supplies to Nepal following the 2015 earthquake, and sent three teams to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017, distributing items such as water filters, food, and solar lights. The organization also rebuilt homes in Houston following Hurricane Harvey in 2018 and provided tents for the homeless and thousands of meals in the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian in 2019.
“The Bahamas was like the pictures of Hiroshima or Nagasaki after World War II,” Alex says. “Everything was just lying on its side. And then there’s random people wandering through the wreckage. I’d never seen anything like it.”
UAF is nimble, which is a key to its success. Run by Alex and a small core of trusted volunteers, there’s minimal overhead and no bureaucracy. UAF connects with local people, learns what’s needed, then quickly takes action, often in communities that haven’t received aid. That speed was particularly important in Haiti. “We started out three days after the earthquake hauling food in from the Dominican Republic,” he says. “Nobody was there. The U.N. couldn’t get their act together. The first year, somebody from our team was down there pretty much every month, and we ran a tent city for about 800 people.”
“I get anxious when life isn’t being lived.”
The obstacles can be maddening. In Haiti, UAF had three flatbed trucks carrying rice, beans, and oil for communities desperate for food, yet it couldn’t get protection from U.N. troops. “The commander told us they were having a soccer game,” a still-dismayed Alex says. “He basically ran us out at the end of his gun.”
Post-earthquake Haiti was particularly dangerous. “Death was everywhere, and you know, I’m not in the military. I’m not a cop or a firefighter, so I’ve never seen anything like that,” he says. “I definitely had some PTSD that I had to address.”
The tough conditions have built deep bonds between Alex and his volunteers. They’re like the Rolling Stones of international aid: hard-drinking, lots of swagger, relentless energy. They also share a zeal for trash talk. All week, the group teased a fellow volunteer about his plans for a Disney cruise.
“John has this tough, don’t-mess-with-me persona, but underneath all of that, he’s the kindest, most caring, most giving person,” says Hayo, who’s also a UAF board member. “I said to him, ‘Will you put together a team for us,’ and he did it. He went and got the people, he got the funding for all those guys to come, all these supplies. I’d go anywhere with him. He’s a get-it-done kind of guy.”
Alex expresses amazement that a “Midwestern knucklehead” like himself has traveled to such far-flung places. After growing up in Overland Park, Kansas, he attended Columbia University on a football scholarship, playing linebacker and serving as team captain. The team endured a 44-game losing streak until a rainy October day in 1988 when Alex and his teammates beat Princeton, 16-13.
He was always interested in serving others. In college, Alex volunteered with a YMCA after-school program in Spanish Harlem. After starting his own financial firm, he volunteered with the Red Cross (and continues to do so). Alex later journeyed to post-tsunami Sri Lanka and Indonesia with his sister — a volunteer with aid organization Heart to Heart International — which led him to create UAF. In 2010, Alex’s humanitarian work earned him a volunteer service award from President Barack Obama. It has also changed him on a personal level.
“When you’re with a family and we just took all your possessions and threw them in the street, and took your house down to the studs; when you see people going through wet, moldy pictures or just in tears … I cry all the time,” he says. “I don’t think I was much of a crier before I started doing this.”
Over four days in Mali, Alex and his team built a long, covered lunch area for the students, who previously ate on the ground under the harsh African sun, along with nine large tables and 54 benches. UAF also used excess building supplies to build an awning and table for the school’s cooking hut, as well as two soccer goals for an adjacent field. As part of the project, volunteers taught young villagers how to build benches themselves.
“We do this because it’s what we’re good at,” Alex says. “I feel like what I’m doing isn’t any different than somebody who’s going down the street and reading to old people. I don’t think my good is better than your good. I’m just wired for this type of good.”
He’s also wired to lead. Remember that local tea he was drinking by the fire? When we arrived in Dagabo, Hayo warned us: Don’t drink the tea. A previous volunteer got sick, she said. Alex scoffed. He was not going to say no when a villager offered him tea, which is a social ritual in Dagabo. Sure enough, a man soon stood before Alex with a small glass on a tray. The custom is to drink the tea quickly, almost like a shot.
Alex pounded the first of many glasses and smiled.
“That’s good,” he said, nodding with satisfaction. Soon we all were drinking the tea, because we all follow John Alex’s lead, brother. (And no, none of us got sick.)
Ken Budd is the author of The Voluntourist and the host of 650,000 Hours, an upcoming web series and podcast on travel and real-life American heroes.
This article is featured in the July/August 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: He came, he sawed… John Alex (right) is more at home in a small dusty village, like this one in Mali, than at a stuffy Manhattan cocktail party. (courtesy United Aid Foundation)
Talk to Orrin Hudson and you’ll hear frequent motivational phrases. “Taking is for losers, giving is for winners,” says Hudson, founder of Be Someone, an organization based in Stone Mountain, Georgia, that teaches chess to at-risk kids. Another favorite for troubled teens: “Think it out, don’t shoot it out. Brains before bullets.” His quip on why failure is part of learning: “Every master was once a disaster.”
As befits a champion chess player — Hudson was the first African American to win the city chess championship in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama — his sayings are well-calculated. Capturing bishops and knights, to Hudson, is far more than a game. By teaching chess, he’s developing kids’ critical thinking skills and inspiring them to set high goals — to be kings instead of pawns. Every move has consequences, he likes to say, and the loquacious Hudson, a motivational mix of Garry Kasparov, Steve Harvey, and Yoda, has shared that message with roughly 65,000 kids since forming his organization in 2001.
“I’m teaching them that this is a brain game, and you win or lose based on the decisions you make,” says Hudson, author of One Move at a Time: How to Win at Chess and Life. “It’s not where you line up, but where you wind up. Make every move your best move.”
See? There’s those catchy phrases again. It’s no wonder kids respond to his teachings.
“He’s very charismatic,” says Nataki Montgomery, a longtime Be Someone volunteer whose daughter, a Hudson chess disciple, is now an attorney in New York. “He makes it fun. I’ve seen kids that don’t know anything about chess get really engaged.”
At his camps, Hudson starts with an overview of the game. Sometimes he’ll provide instructions using a life-size chessboard; other times he wanders the room, observing and critiquing as kids play. At one camp he played 59 games at once.
“People watch him and they’re drawn in,” says Montgomery. “He’ll say things like, ‘See what he did? Now this is what I’m going to do.’ People are wondering, What’s the next move going to be? And you’re pulled into the game.”
Hudson’s brother first taught him to play when he was a boy in Birmingham. He was one of 13 children raised by an overburdened mom, and the state moved him in and out of foster homes. By age 14, he was committing petty crimes in a gang. “Mostly we were stealing food,” Hudson says. “One day, we were about to break into this truck and the police came. We took off running. And I thought, This is crazy.”
Things changed when he met a chess enthusiast named James Edge.
“He was a white teacher in an all-black high school,” Hudson says. “He taught me chess and purchased me a thick chess book that I read cover to cover. It was the first book I really read. So I started becoming a reader, and started making better grades and doing well.”
By playing chess, Hudson developed discipline, focus, curiosity, and patience. “I owe my life to James Edge,” he says. “He helped me improve my game because he would play me all the time. He would teach me stuff, and I started thinking for myself. Once you do that, good things start to happen. That was a game changer for me.”
After high school, Hudson served in the Air Force as an airplane mechanic and crew chief, and later spent 6 years as a state trooper in Alabama. He was running a used-car business when he saw a news story in 2000 that altered his life. At a Wendy’s restaurant in Queens, New York, five employees were killed, execution-style, during a robbery; two others were shot and left for dead. The criminals stole $2,400. Even though he didn’t know the victims, Hudson couldn’t shake the cruelty and waste.
“Life has value, and to shoot seven people in the head for $2,400, it ripped my heart out,” he says. “It was a turning point in my life. I said, ‘I’m going to create a program and teach people to put brains before bullets. I’m going to teach young people that there’s a better way.’”
He sold his car business, started the nonprofit, and over the past 18 years, Hudson has helped change the lives of numerous Georgia kids. They are students like Cecil Davis, who credits Hudson for his transformation from goof-off to stellar student after attending his chess camps. Or Aaron Porter, a young man who was nearly jailed for attempted murder. “His father was locked up for 16 years, and he came home, and they got in a fight,” says Hudson. “But the judge gave him one more chance to get his life together.” After working with Hudson, Porter won a state chess championship, despite losing his queen during the match.
“I was so proud because he didn’t give up,” Hudson says of his student, who attended Georgia Tech. “One of the things we teach is don’t focus on what you lost. Focus on what you have and work with what you’ve got. The biggest mistake you ever can make is to give up.”
“He makes it fun. I’ve seen kids that don’t know anything about chess get engaged.”
Hudson calls himself an attitude coach, and he uses frequent chess analogies. Always think three steps ahead, he says. Don’t make the first move that pops in your head. Think before you act. “Most people lose in chess because of greed and impatience, and those are twin killers in business and school and life,” he says.
Montgomery, the veteran volunteer, has relished seeing Hudson inspire others.
“He’s so positive,” she says. “You ask him how he’s doing and he says, ‘I’m fabulous! I’m having a great day!’ You don’t come to his training camp and not get motivated.”
Hudson has received numerous honors from organizations such as the NAACP, the FBI, and Black Enterprise, and in 2018 he was named one of George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light. The awards are nice, but he’s still most passionate about educating, motivating, and instilling confidence in children.
“I tell children, ‘When I look at you, I see me. I was just like you, but here are some things I did differently. And you can too. If I can do it, you can do it. No one is better than you. If we make smart moves, we can get great results.’”
Ken Budd is the author of The Voluntourist and the host of 650,000 Hours, an upcoming web series on travel and real-life American heroes.
Featured image: Courtesy of Orrin Hudson.
This article is featured in the July/August 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.