Hesburgh Hospital: Fighting for Global Health

By Julie Vlaming ‘94 

“If you do important work, ask important questions, tough questions,” offers Dr. David Gaus, ’84, when asked which Hesburgh-imparted wisdom he still carries today.  Fr. Ted challenged him to do “big and bold and ambitious” work, the kind of work that led Gaus to found the Andean Health & Development (AHD) health system in Ecuador, which brings reliable health care to people in rural areas who otherwise would have none.  

An ND student, a priest & an advice columnist
The beginnings of Hesburgh Hospital, and AHD generally, have roots dating back many years.  In his senior year, not-yet-Dr. Gaus realized he was an accounting major who did not want to be an accountant.  He sought out Fr. Ted for advice.  “There is almost no other university where a kid like me can have access to a university president.  To be open to a kid like me and help me follow my dream is a rare quality in a university president,” Gaus says.  

When graduation came, David volunteered for two years in Quito at a family development program called the Working Boys Center.  Most of the people served came to Quito from the countryside, which, says David, “is like a whole other country.”  During his time in Ecuador, David developed a deep and powerful love for the country and its people.  He found himself transformed by their pain and suffering.  “I found my passion in life, discovered what my vocation was – to get back to Ecuador.”  

Toward the conclusion of his two-year volunteer period, David again sought Fr. Ted’s counsel.  Gaus wrote Fr. Ted a letter in which he stated he wanted to go to medical school.  But to do that, Gaus would need additional science classes and a way to pay for it.  Five weeks later, a reply came from Fr. Ted.  He had liked the letter and would do what he could to help make David’s dream a reality.  

Shortly thereafter, Fr. Ted found himself sharing a dais with Eppie Lederer (a.k.a. Ann Landers, the well-known advice columnist).  Fr. Ted told her about David’s journey and desire to further help those who had transformed him in Ecuador.  Moved by the story, Ann Landers provided the money for David to strengthen his science background.  Two years later, Gaus was admitted to the Tulane University School of Medicine, and once again, Ms. Landers came through with the funds.  After medical school, Dr. Gaus completed his residency in family medicine and took a faculty position at the University of Wisconsin.  After two years in Madison, David returned to Ecuador.  

Reliable Healthcare for Those Who Need It Most
When he first arrived, David knew he wanted to be a doctor in the countryside and do something that addressed the problems of the Ecuadorian healthcare system, perhaps involving health education and health promotion, but his exact vision was not yet clear. In the meantime, he worked with an Ecuadorian physician and learned more about the daily trials faced by those who lived in rural areas.  These realities too often included deaths that could easily have been prevented had there been a hospital nearby: a young boy who died of a snakebite, a woman who bled out during childbirth, children with severe dehydration, and people dying from organophosphate toxicity due to unprotected exposure to pesticides.  

Fr. Ted spoke at the dedication of Hospital PVM, AHD’s first hospital.
Sending people from the countryside to the city for medical care presented unexpected challenges.  Those who had never been to the city had to navigate an unfamiliar healthcare system during physically and mentally taxing times.  These rural Ecuadorians often had no clothes, no money and no place to stay during the time of their hospital treatments.  David and his partner decided they needed to build a hospital in the countryside, close to home.

Fast forward to today, and AHD has founded two hospitals.  The first, located in Pedro Vicente Maldonado (PVM), a two-hour drive from Quito, opened in 2000.  Hospital PVM became financially self-sustaining by 2007.  Hesburgh Hospital, named to honor the man who did so much to make the work of AHD possible, opened in June 2014, two and a half hours from the first hospital.  

Hesburgh Hospital

With 60 beds, Hesburgh Hospital is more than three times larger than the 17-bed Hospital PVM, and its 80-90 person staff serves approximately 3,000 people per month.  Though those who seek treatment represent every segment of the local population, though women and children comprise the biggest percentage of patients.  Hesburgh Hospital assists women with issues like diabetes, hypothyroidism, kidney and bladder infections, and provides services like prenatal care, pap smears and colonoscopies.  Hesburgh Hospital also provides therapy for those who suffer from mood disorders like depression or anxiety, as well as victims of domestic violence.  

When facing ever-present challenges in patient care, David looks to another piece of wisdom he received from Fr. Ted.  He says, “Fr. Ted used to pray, ‘Come Holy Spirit.’  You have to appeal to a higher power.  If there isn’t any spiritual basis to social justice, it becomes superficial.”  Though AHD is not a religious organization, David believes that most supporters see its growth as a spiritual journey.  Dr. Gaus saw Fr. Ted use his position as a university president to influence the larger culture.  In the same way, Gaus hopes AHD, though a small institution, can train people and impact policy to influence the larger world.  It’s no small point that for the last fifteen years of his life, Andean Health and Development was the only organization besides the University of Notre Dame that Fr. Ted actively supported.  

Fighting for Self-Sustainability 

Right now, with Hesburgh Hospital at 65% self-sustainability, the hospital needs funds to cover working capital to address its deficits until it reaches full self-sustainability, which Gaus believes will be achieved in the next two to three years.  Funding would finish and equip the hospital.  In addition, funds would also cover the costs of AHD’s small administrative unit in the U.S.  If you feel called to contribute to Hesburgh Hospital’s self-sustainability and Fr. Ted’s ever-unfolding gift, please visit the Notre Dame alumni-founded crowdsourcing platform at Come Holy Spirit.

Many thanks to Dr. David Gaus ‘84, Anne Kenney ‘90 and Sharon Bui Green ‘02, ‘04, ‘07 for their assistance with this story. 

Special note: Please know that Andean Health’s staff and hospitals are safe following the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Ecuador on Saturday. Their hospitals will be doing everything possible to serve as many earthquake victims as they can. AHD is coordinating with the Ministry of Health and provincial governments to triage and receive critically ill surgical patients at Hesburgh Hospital. In addition to supporting Hesburgh Hospital’s self-sustainability, you may also use the link above to send aid to earthquake victims.

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