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'All people with cancer deserve that kind of care'

Chemo Tent

By Matthew Harris

Courtney Roberts peered out the window of Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret, Kenya, and she instantly recognized an alley she had never set foot in before.

There were the cinderblock walls. The patch of ground was unchanged. She imagined patients lining both sides. They sat in plastic lawn chairs. IV lines dangled from their arms. Metal pans rested next to them on the ground, waiting to be snatched up if nausea became too much to bear.

“This is where our patients receiving chemotherapy used to sit,” said Patrick J. Loehrer Sr., MD, director of the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center and co-founder of the AMPATH Oncology Institute.

Roberts already knew.

Tacked up in her office at Eli Lilly and Company, where she works supporting the drug maker’s global health initiatives, is a photograph framing the same scene. Next to it hung another snapshot: a man leans back in a recliner, hands propped behind his head, a blanket pulled up to his chin and an easy grin on his face. He looks confident. Not like a patient passing time in an infusion suite as chemotherapy drugs flow and fight stage 2 pancreatic cancer.

Roberts’ dad would often send her photos while he was receiving treatment, to ensure his daughter that he was going to be just fine.

“The photo says, ‘I’ve got this,’” said Roberts, whose father ultimately succumbed in December 2014.

She would frequently glance between the photo of her dad and the one from Kenya, where IU School of Medicine leads a consortium working in conjunction with the Kenyan government and a local medical school to tackle HIV, chronic disease and improve public health. No padded seats. No blankets. No nurses ferrying snacks to ease pangs of hunger. Just tents in an alley. Yet they were the fortunate ones. They’d been screened, diagnosed and treated.

“The two photos were always in my line of sight, they kept me grounded and gave me perspective while my dad was fighting cancer,” she remembered.

In July 2016, four flights carried Roberts to Kenya, but the scene she was familiar with from the photo was gone. Instead, the Chandaria Cancer and Chronic Disease Center opened its doors, built with significant funding from the Lilly Foundation and other generous donors, as the first public facility in western Kenya capable of screening and treating people with cancer. And as she looked outside, Loehrer asked Roberts a question.

“What do you see?” Loehrer said.

“No more tents,” she replied.

While Roberts had spent five years working closely with AMPATH, her visit and the sights she saw helped sway her to take the next step and personally support the consortium’s work.

“Once I made the trip and was able to see with my own eyes the improvements that were being made and lives being saved, it was no longer part of my job,” she said. “It turned into something very personal. It also went back to my dad and how he was cared for. Regardless of your location on the map, all people with cancer deserve that kind of care.”

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Ryan Bowman

Director of Alumni Relations