Dr. Ekikere Ukpong checks a patient’s blood pressure during a physical exam at the first of the Joseph Ukpo Hospitals and Research Institutes (JUHRI) constructed to provide high-quality health care to the poor in rural Nigeria. COURTESY PHOTO

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Omaha priest leads efforts to build hospitals in Nigeria

Father Andrew Ekpenyong knows first-hand the great need of his fellow Nigerians for high-quality health care. He’s made it his mission to provide it.

“The need is enormous and the government alone cannot do it. Health insurance is almost non-functional,” he said. “I personally grew up there, so I know, in concrete ways beyond the numbers, that people are suffering.”

Now, thanks to collaborators there, in the United States and throughout the world, impoverished residents in deprived areas of southern Nigeria have access to free health care. It’s all due to the ongoing efforts of Father Ekpenyong, who now lives in Omaha, and a team of volunteer medical workers, researchers and fundraising managers.

FATHER ANDREW EKPENYONG

Since the commissioning of its first hospital in June 2018, the Joseph Ukpo Hospitals and Research Institutes (JUHRI) have provided medical care at no cost to nearly 11,000 adults and children. The hospital is located in a rural area in the Diocese of Uyo.

A second hospital is under construction and scheduled to open in June 2022 in the Archdiocese of Calabar and a third facility is planned for the Diocese of Ogoja. All three hospitals will be in the Catholic Ecclesiastical Province of Calabar, which cuts across three states in Nigeria in the south of the country, on or near the Atlantic coast. Each facility will have 150 beds.

JUHRI is named after Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Edra Ukpo, a mentor to Father Ekpenyong from his home archdiocese of Calabar.

“He sent me here and I was given the opportunity to study physics in the United States and the freedom to give back my resources,” Father Ekpenyong said. “It was gratitude and privilege to be able to do that.”

Father Ekpenyong earned his master’s degree in physics from Omaha’s Creighton University in 2007 and his Ph.D. in 2012 from the University of Cambridge in England.  He completed postdoctoral work in Germany before returning to Omaha in 2014, where he teaches physics at Creighton and is a resident priest at St. Mary Magdalene Parish.

INSPIRED FOUNDATION

He founded JUHRI in 2010 with the goal of creating a network of hospitals and research institutes that bring the benefits of modern medical science to those in great need of health care while advancing medical science through research.

“I was inspired by our Lord Jesus Christ and many brothers and sisters who are doing what Christ did,” Father Ekpenyong said.

A wide array of medical services are available to JUHRI patients, including ultrasounds, X-rays, blood work, pediatric care, internal medicine, laboratory diagnostics, infectious disease treatment and prevention, vision and hearing screenings and general health care consultation. In addition to the hospital services, JUHRI also provides free health care in the community through medical outreach mobile clinics.

More than 70 doctors donate their time and services to JUHRI.

“I am inspired and I am blessed by the reaction of doctors in Nigeria,” Father Ekpenyong said. “When I started, I was very concerned that I would not get good doctors because I would not be able to pay them. That has turned out to be the easiest part.”

‘UNPARALLELED’ CARE

Father Ekpenyong and other volunteers on the JUHRI management team are pleased with the program’s progress and positive outcomes.

JUHRI-American Partnerships Manager Dr. Nickolas Maxwell, an emergency medicine resident at Washington University in St. Louis and former student of Father Ekpenyong at Creighton, says the impact of the initiative in the region is unparalleled to any he’s encountered.

“We take care of some of the poorest of the poor with the least access to health care and resources, and we can provide them with top-tier care,” he said. “It’s truly phenomenal but also, since the cost of care there is so low, we’re able to have a high impact. The average cost for us to test and treat malaria is $6. That’s mind-blowing to me.”

Maxwell said in addition to providing free health care, JUHRI also strives to make communities in Nigeria self-sustaining. At the urging of Father Ekpenyong, Maxwell spent a month in Nigeria during a break from classes at Creighton teaching an Emergency Medical Services course to health care professionals, ambulance drivers, laboratory technicians and businessmen.

JUHRI is also helping Nigerian residents learn life skills.

“Poor women in the area can join the Skills Acquisition Center, where they can learn employable skills like sewing,” he said. “That way they can generate their own income to provide support to their family in an effort to break the cycle of poverty.”

INTERNATIONAL SUPPORT

Since 2014, construction and operating costs have totaled $288,655, so casting a wide net to gain international support was needed.

Maxwell, who grew up in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, is among a handful of volunteers who have secured donations of funds and equipment for JUHRI. Through his connections in Minnesota, including the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, JUHRI has received two ambulances that are utilized for mobile clinics.

Dr. Sung-Mi (Kim) Mar is JUHRI’s Europe/Asia partnerships manager. She became friends with Father Ekpenyong while both were studying at the University of Cambridge.

“He shared his ideas about building research hospitals, which offer free health care to fellow Nigerians living in deprived rural areas,” she said. “His passion and dedication for JUHRI was so inspiring and I just trusted that he would make it happen.”

Dr. Mar’s role is to identify individuals and institutions in Europe and Asia that may be interested in JUHRI. Father Ekpenyong said Mar succeeded in convincing the government of South Korea to contribute $19,900. In all, U.S. and international donations to date have totaled $121,655.

GIFTS TO SPARK GIVING

Because of his position at Creighton, Father Ekpenyong has little time to reach out to the community to do traditional fundraising. He has, however, contributed $2,000 from his teaching salary each month to JUHRI, for about $168,000 in total.

“That, I hope, inspires people to donate,” he said. “There are about 10 other people who donate every month and we use that to run the hospital. Every month, we have a minimum of $3,000 donated and that’s what keeps us going. Even COVID-19 didn’t shake us. We never ran out of funds.”

Father Ekpenyong said the Archdiocese of Omaha and the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith have also been significant supporters, donating $46,200 so far. That included a $15,000 gift from the archdiocese before the first hospital was commissioned to pay for the shipment of donated medical equipment.

“I am very happy with the archbishop and the Propagation of the Faith,” he said. “Also, Msgr. James Gilg, who is president of the non-profit (Friends of JUHRI) that assists with fundraising.”

Additional information about JUHRI and a link to donate can be found on the program’s website, www.juhri.org.