One February night in 2003, Ray Rickman flipped on the radio to divert his attention from his aches and a teeth-chattering chill. Enveloped in blankets, Rickman tuned in to National Public Radio, hoping to catch a snippet of political analysis or some feel-good feature broadcast.
Instead, he was greeted by the dismayed voice of a central African doctor. Rickman listened in shock as the doctor described a woman who sought his medical attention, first to treat her common cold, then the flu about a week later. The doctor lacked any medication or treatment for either illness. A week later, she died from the pneumonia that aggravated her existing heart disease.
“There I was, lying in bed with the flu, the possibility of death never even crossing my mind,” recalls Rickman, a former state representative and former deputy secretary of state, who now heads his own consulting firm in Providence.
The doctor felt helpless because he had no funds to treat the woman. Making $70 monthly, $50 of which went to his rent, he barely had enough to support himself. Like so many other Central African doctors, this one planned to move to South Africa, where he could make a far better salary, and have the resources to help his patients, rather than sending them home to die.
Rickman was so moved by this tale that he contacted the doctor, asking him what it would take for him to stay in central Africa. When the doctor responded that he would stay if his salary doubled to $100 per month, Rickman began by supplementing his pay and that of two other doctors. From this was born Adopt a Doctor (www.adoptadoctor.org), an organization co-founded by Rickman and Rajiv Kumar, now a second-year Brown University medical student, who became interested after spotting information on the project at Brown.
One of Adopt a Doctor’s main goals is providing doctors with an incentive to remain in their home countries. The nonprofit now supplements the salaries of 10 doctors in four of the world’s poorest countries: Malawi and Sierra Leone, where $100 per month triples a doctor’s salary; Liberia, where $100 per month doubles the salary; and Haiti, where $100 per month provides a 50 percent salary increase.
After three years, Adopt a Doctor had saved enough money to send Kumar to Bamako, Mali, last summer, where the organization supports two physicians. There, he conducted research and worked to educate residents about HIV/AIDS transmission. He also teamed with the GAIA Vaccine Association, an international organization working to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.
The team hopes to make HIV/AIDS treatment — which is free in Mali, but only utilized by 6000 to 8000 of 250,000 of the infected individuals — more accessible to the population, most of which lives in rural areas and lack transportation. GAIA is currently building Mali’s only rural HIV/AIDS clinic, for which Adopt a Doctor is working to create an endowment.
Until Kumar’s visit to Mali, neither he nor Rickman had seen their work in action, since Adopt a Doctor relies mainly on technology to make connections with donors and recipients. As Rickman says, “We operate on trust.”
To help it reach its goal of adopting 40 additional doctors, the nonprofit will benefit from a holiday shopping event sponsored by Narragansett Beer, at Lily Pad Home Furnishings, 100 Fountain St., Providence, on December 6 from 4 to 7 pm. Twenty percent of all sales will benefit Adopt a Doctor. “It’s so simple and easy to help,” concludes Rickman. “I’ve never been involved in anything so simple.”