Meet a Physician - Stephen Chan, MD, Phd

Our road to establishing the Addis Clinic has not been easy. But I am grateful for those obstacles – because of them, this endeavor and our experiences have made an indelible mark on me personally.

My wife Sol started us on this journey together. Before we were married and when I was a freshly minted doctor who had just graduated from medical school, Sol pushed me to broaden my experience outside the “stuffy” confines of the big academic medical institutions in this country. She had made in-roads to work with the ACT (Aids Care and Treatment) project in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, started by Andy and Bev Warren, lifelong missionaries in East Africa. I was thrilled by the possibility of gaining global health experience abroad. But, conservative by nature, I was also intimidated by the prospect of working in the most impoverished areas of Addis Ababa where any number of unpredictable events could and do occur.

When Sol and I stepped off the plane in Addis Ababa in the spring of 2004, the city was a place more different than I had ever seen. At the time, it was estimated that nearly half of the entire population of East Africa had been infected with HIV, and access to antiretroviral drugs for these people was extremely limited. So many people were dying of AIDS due to social, medical, and financial neglect. Suffering was at a level that I had never witnessed. Large neighborhoods of poorly constructed, single room tin shacks with dirt floors and no ventilation – their homes– were where we would visit our patients. Some of our patients were doing well; most were languishing. I recall visiting a 36-year-old dying man’s home; he was in the last stages of AIDS where his body, already malnourished, was succumbing to an infection, affecting his lungs, liver or both. His son, probably about 8 years old and who had already lost his mother, was next to him. “What will happen after my father dies?” he asked in Amharic. I did not have an answer.

In those 2 weeks, we saw a huge volume of patients, both through home visits and through community clinics held at neighborhood churches and gathering places. News spread that doctors were here to help, and lines of people formed throughout the day and into the night. Sometimes I felt that I made a small difference; most of the time, however, I didn’t know what to do, either because I was not trained in that area of medicine or there was no simple solution to their dire health needs. I expected that my patients would be upset and question me and the legitimacy of my medical advice. But, I was wrong. I remember their overwhelming gratitude and a realization in their eyes that they were not forgotten. As doctors, we crave that experience; it’s why many of us became physicians in the first place. Too often, those moments are fleeting or absent from modern medical practice, at least in this country.

After returning home and processing these experiences, I found myself thinking about strategies to connect again with these Ethiopians in a more consistent way and in a process that would allow for more of a chance to help, even from a distance. At that time, broadband internet was being introduced into countries like Ethiopia, and I imagined an idea that we could be a part of these people’s lives via telemedicine. But, the idea was too big to tackle alone and remained only “talk” for many years. In 2011, my co-founder and close friend Jon Cahill finally pulled me aside and challenged me – “We either need to start this together or stop talking about it.”

Today, the Addis Clinic is a combination of a global health, non-profit, and a tech management organization. We work with local organizations around the world who serve those persons in most need. Thanks to our generous supporters and our dedicated staff, we are in exponential growth, adding global partners, physicians, and technological advancements in order to make a positive impact in the poorest areas of the world. The work never ends, but my motivation is still rooted in our initial experiences in 2004: it is a privilege to offer help to those who need it the most, and we strive to show them, more than anything, that they are not forgotten.