High Stakes in Lilongwe

Alan Schooley: Alumni Profile

By Joe Rada

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Schooley with a local student receiving funds for transportation to school from the Malawi Children's Fund. Photo courtesy of Neal Schooley

Once unsure where to find Malawi on a map, Alan Schooley, M.D., now lives there, making life better for children. The pediatrician, a 1997 UAB School of Medicine graduate, practices at Partners in Hope Medical Clinic in southeast Africa, treating HIV/AIDS patients in a landlocked country slightly smaller than Mississippi.

How did a former chair of pediatrics in New Mexico’s Navajo Nation land in an even more remote and impoverished place? “I’d taken mission trips to Peru and Ecuador, providing pediatric care, and was looking for a hospital in Central America where I could volunteer a few weeks each year,” Schooley says. “I contacted Presbyterian hospitals there and learned that they really needed me in Malawi. I wasn’t entirely sure where that was.”

Changed Views

A month at Nkhoma Hospital in Malawi opened his eyes. “That trip changed my view of poverty and disease,” Schooley says. “The medical needs are immense—lack of staff, lack of equipment, lack of drugs and IV fluids, overwhelming numbers of patients. I watched more children die from malaria, sepsis, and respiratory infections in one month than I had in my whole career. Electrical power goes out, and children die because the oxygen concentrators aren’t running. Roads become impassible during the rainy season, and people die because they can’t access a hospital.”

Schooley cofounded the nonprofit Malawi Children’s Fund to raise money for education and medical supplies. The fund has sent 40 students to school who otherwise would be working on subsistence farms, provided scholarships to four nursing students, paid for training public health officers, improved drinking water, and bought more than $12,000 in medical supplies and lab equipment.

“Education is key to raising people out of poverty,” Schooley says. “Things will improve when children go to school and become engineers, architects, teachers, and health workers—when there’s an educated population that can build a better country.”

Schooley’s own education at UAB, where he got involved in AIDS education and Birmingham Health Care for the Homeless, helped define his goals. “A rural medicine rotation in Greene County showed me how challenges are not divided equally,” he says, “a concept further refined by working in Malawi.”

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Schooley (second from right in back) and American medical school residents at Partners in Hope. Photo courtesy of Neal Schooley

A Smile and a Thumbs-Up

Missions in 2009 and 2010 convinced him to relocate to Malawi permanently in 2011, joined by his daughter, Lauren; son, Mark; and wife, Kimberly, a lawyer who teaches at the school their children attend in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital. They’re getting accustomed to the sprawling city with oxen and chickens in the streets, frequent fuel shortages and power outages, occasional political upheavals, a sporadic water supply, and a constant search for groceries.

Schooley says he willingly chooses such conditions in part because of Lauren and Mark, who have experienced the rewards of distributing much-needed supplies bought with money they helped raise. Another reason involves a Malawi case study.

“I admitted a two-month-old I never thought would make it through the night,” Schooley says. “I went home only when I felt I had done all I could. The next morning the child’s mother—she didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak much Chichewa—gave me the biggest smile and a thumbs-up sign. Her daughter had lived. We all need to help others, in our own community or someone else’s. Malawi is where I fit. The stakes are high, and the potential for improving lives is great. The difference between life and death is often very simple: power staying on, enough IV catheters, not running out of ceftriaxone. If I train a clinician to care for an HIV patient, diagnose tuberculosis, or keep a CD4 machine running, I’ve done something worthwhile. That makes up for the stress and frustration of working in such a poor country.”