Lost Boy finds his way

Jacob Atem continues to support clinic he founded in South Sudan, despite risks

By Morgan Sherburne

RC_20140311_UF_one_health_0056When he was a boy, Jacob Atem told himself that if he heard shouts of, “Lion! Lion!” he would run for the bush, where he could hide.

He was one of Sudan’s Lost Boys — one of thousands of orphaned boys escaping civil strife in the country during the 1990s. More than 2.5 million people died in the conflict, which lasted until 2005.

One night, the calls warning of a lion finally came.

“When I was young, I thought it would be safer to hide in the bush, but the lion was coming out of the same bush I was running toward,” he says. “So I ran. I was really scared and I went so fast and I was so skinny, there was a branch I didn’t see. I ran right into the sharp tree.”

Atem could see his own bone.

“I told myself, man, I wish I was a doctor,” he remembers. “There was no doctor to help me.”

There are fewer than 100 doctors in South Sudan, a country of close to 12 million people. Atem, now a UF doctoral student, is bringing doctors to South Sudan through the nonprofit Southern Sudan Health Care Organization he founded with fellow Lost Boy David Deng.

Atem made it out of the bush and away from the lions, then spent nine years in Kenya. The United States government arranged for hundreds of the Lost Boys to be placed in U.S. foster care. Atem came to Michigan where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in public health from Michigan State University, all the while building a health care clinic in his home village of Maar in the state of Jonglei, Southern Sudan. The clinic was completed in October 2011 and quickly saw more than 100 patients a day.

At UF, Atem is completing a Ph.D. in the PHHP department of environmental and global health’s One Health program. The One Health concept addresses complex problems from multiple disciplines, often focusing on how these connected issues affect public health, veterinary health and environmental health. For Atem, the concept felt specifically designed for the kind of work he wants to continue in his home country.

“In South Sudan, we are nomadic people. We travel with cows. This skill set will be much needed, understanding that prevention is better than a cure,” he said. “Certain outbreaks always start in the animal sector. A farmer could get in contact with his pig, and come in contact with someone else. Before you know it, you have an outbreak.”

Every year he is able, Atem returns to Sudan to work on his health clinic in Maar. This was his intention in early December 2013.

On Dec. 15, 2013, a fight between two ethnic groups of soldiers — the Dinka and the Neur — in South Sudan broke out during the meeting of the country’s National Liberation Council. The soldiers were part of the Sudanese Presidential Guard. The fighting spread beyond the capitol city of Juba on Dec. 17, spurred by conflicts between the two ethnic groups.

Amid the conflict, Atem and his wife, Linda Atem, were trying to escape. Linda was able to fly from Juba to safety in Rwanda, but Jacob was left behind in the United Nations compound in Bor, where he had made his way only after Linda left. The same horrors he faced as a child came roaring back. He remained in the compound for about a week.

The clinic now has no budget to pay doctors and no medications to treat the patients who have come to rely on the medical care they receive there. More mothers in Sudan die during pregnancy or childbirth than any country in the world — about 2,500 per 100,000, according to the World Health Organization. About one out of every 10 children will die before they turn 5.

His recent experience has only cemented Atem’s desire to continue with the health care clinic in his hometown.

“People don’t understand why I go back, but if we leave, where would they get access to care?” Atem said. “Health does not have boundaries.”

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