Next time you hear yourself complaining that childhood educational hurdles prevented you from achieving your dreams, consider the career trajectory of Peter Magabe. He grew up in one of the poorest districts of Kenya, an area called Kuria, near the border of Tanzania. Eighty percent of the families in Kuria live below the poverty line – that is, the Kenyan poverty line.
His parents, like his grandparents before them, were illiterate subsistence farmers. Yet, recently, Dr. Magabe returned to his homeland from Israel, trained as one of the two interventional radiologists in East Africa, an area of 1.8 million square kilometers with a combined population of more than 130 million people.
At my invitation, we’re meeting at the popular Aroma café in the mall at Hadassah University Medical Center. Dr. Magabe needs directions.
He’s been on the Ein Kerem campus for a year but he’s not inclined to visit cafés. He orders tea. After finishing high school, he spent a year as a tea picker, working in the blazing sun on a Kenyan plantation. “I was part of a men’s crew, he says, “plucking buds and leaves.”
His parents managed to buy the notebooks and pencils needed to send the oldest of their six children to public school. From first grade on, Peter Magabe was the top student in the class. He didn’t realize how gifted he was until he got a dazzling score on the national exams in eighth grade and learned he might have a future beyond his village. His ambition to become a doctor was honed out of the insult of always being at the back of the long, winding line at public health clinics, no matter how sick he or his family members were. “I fractured my leg playing soccer and had to wait for hours along with the poor people,” he says. “I resolved to become a physician and to provide quality health care for all.”
Fewer than half of Kenyan children graduate from high school – even fewer in rural districts than in Nairobi. Magabe says he had to score among the top 100 of 300,000 students who took the exam to be admitted to the University of Nairobi medical school. He succeeded in getting in and excelled in the six-year program.
To pay back their state-funded education, medical graduates are required to work for three years in the country’s periphery. Magabe took on a job in a mission hospital serving a population of 3 million people. At last he was able to provide quality service to the poor.
He first trained to be a surgeon, but was frustrated by the dearth of tools to stop internal bleeding.
“It’s terrible to watch your patients bleed to death, or to have to remove the womb of a young woman.” In the West, he knew, such crises are resolved by interventional radiology, which uses minimally-invasive procedures to diagnose and treat diseases. He was determined to bring this technology to his patients. But to study interventional radiology, the village-born doctor would have to travel abroad on a fellowship. First he’d have to be go through a process of being accepted and then find the funds to support himself, leaving his wife and daughter in Kenya.
Major university hospitals in Australia, Canada and the United States offered programs in interventional radiology, but they all required complicated acceptance processes, including entrance exams. There was one other fellowship available – in Jerusalem.
“I’m a devout Christian, and I knew of Jerusalem from the Bible,” says Magabe. He and his wife, a bank loan officer, even belonged to a Friends of Israel organization in Nairobi. He sent an email to Prof. Allan Isaac Bloom, chief of vascular and interventional radiology at Hadassah. According to Magabe, when he didn’t get an immediate reply, he wasn’t discouraged.
He sent a second email. This time, Bloom answered. He’d read Magabe’s CV and invited him to come for an interview. The Israelis were impressed, and he was accepted for the fellowship.
“First appearances were of a smart, welleducated and skilled radiologist – didn’t gel with his background,” Bloom says.
A cooperative program between the governments of Israel and Kenya would help cover the expenses.
Magabe was fascinated by Jerusalem, filling in the gaps of his Bible education – he sat in a succa, ate matza on Passover and barbecued kebabs on Independence Day. The degree of integration between Jewish and Arab staff and patients was unexpected to him. “I thought the hospitals would be all Jewish,” he says. “In the hospital, everyone gets along.”
But most important, he got what he came for.
“The program suited me perfectly, with experience in a wide variety of procedures,” says Mugabe. Israel, he says, is as advanced as the other countries he’d considered. In certain new techniques, it is more advanced.
Israeli hospital culture required considerable adjustment. “As a doctor, I’d never raise my voice or show I was upset, no matter how long the line is,” Magabe says. “I’d lose my reputation.
Here people don’t hesitate to show their excitement and emotions. I understand that it comes out of a passion for life saving and perfectionism, but it was new to me.”
The Israelis had some adjusting to do, too, says Bloom. “Indeed, we have a different tempo and sometimes found ourselves nudging Dr.
Magabe to work more quickly. His technical skills were only apparent after he started the fellowship.”
Despite their different temperaments, Bloom was awed by his Kenyan colleague’s ability to overcome gaps. “It took him longer than I expected to get comfortable with some of the devices, and I’d remind myself how amazing it was that he’d caught on despite his complete lack of exposure to this sophisticated equipment.”
Bloom, 50, grew up in Ireland and earned his undergraduate and medical degrees at Dublin Trinity College. He is the first physician in his family too. His grandparents arrived in England and Scotland as immigrants fleeing persecution in Russia and Lithuania, moving later to to Ireland.
His late father’s desire was to be a neurosurgeon, but he had to leave high school to get a job to help support his family. Prof. Bloom moved to Israel in 1989, and so, in Jerusalem, the Jewish doctor from Dublin was able to pass on his life-saving knowledge to his colleague from Africa.
Bloom says, “It’s a wonderful feeling for me that as a result of Dr. Magabe’s fellowship, lives will be saved, far away in Kenya and the rest of East Africa. A kind of Torah mi’zion.”
After a year in Israel, Dr. Peter Magabe knows enough Hebrew to understand what that means.