Wellesley Alumna on Her Second Tour Volunteering to Help Patients with Ebola

February 23, 2015
Dr. Kwan Kew Lai ‘74

Dr. Kwan Kew Lai '74 is an infectious disease specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She has volunteered in a number of humanitarian aid efforts, but she has never seen anything like what she witnessed in Liberia volunteering to help treat patients with Ebola. “As the outbreak escalates, I just cannot see myself sitting at home,” Lai told the Wall Street Journal in the fall.

On February 12, NPR aired a story profiling Lai and her volunteer work at an Ebola treatment center in Bong, Liberia, where she served last fall. While volunteering, Lai wrote almost daily in her blog about her experiences. Her writings “offer a rare and moving window into a world we've only gotten glimpses of,” NPR wrote.

Originally from Penang, Malaysia, Lai came to the United States after receiving a scholarship to attend Wellesley. “Without that open door I would not have gone on to become a doctor," Lai wrote in her Doctor’s Without Borders bio.

We asked Dr. Lai about her work, she wrote: “Ten years ago after my first medical volunteering during the tsunami of Asia, I left my position as a full time Professor of Medicine in Infectious Diseases and Internal Medicine. Since then I have been dividing my time between practicing clinical medicine part time in the Boston areas and volunteering in various parts of the world responding to disasters.”  

Lai has offered HIV/AIDS care in Ho Chi Minh City, and the rural areas of Tanzania, South Africa, and Malawi, and in the urban area of Abuja, the capital of turbulent Nigeria. She served as a relief doctor in the refugee camps in Uganda near the borders of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and during the Arab Spring in Libya while the last battle for the control of Libya was being fought in Sirte. She volunteered during the drought and famine of the Horn of Africa, traveling through challenging terrain under the constant threat of Al-Shabaab, and in the remote villages of newly independent South Sudan where the nearly two decades of civil war virtually wiped out any existing healthcare facilities. She traveled to Haiti after the earthquake and the cholera outbreak, and the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.

"Without the opportunity that Wellesley offered me many years ago,” Lai wrote. “I would not have been confronted with situations in which my heart is greatly touched and moved; or met men, women, and children, who in the face of extreme suffering and insurmountable obstacles still continue to have the courage and resilience to fight to live and survive another day. They constantly leave me in awe and amazement."

She signed her reflection, “Non Ministrari sed Ministrare.”

Dr. Lai returned to West Africa this month, this time to Sierra Leone, where she is again volunteering with Ebola patients. “It would be unconscionable for me to sit back and relax while there is still an ongoing need for physicians like me to help out,” Lai wrote in a recent blog post about her decision to go back.

Lai recently signed with a literary agent for a book she wrote, Into Africa: My Journey from Academic Medicine in US to Bush Medicine, chronicling her volunteering experiences in Africa before the Ebola outbreak. She hopes the book will be published soon.

You can listen to the profile of Dr. Lai, and read excerpts of her blog, on the NPR blog Goats and Soda. Lai’s story is part of a series called The Ebola Diaries.

Goats and Soda also recently featured an interview with Donna Patterson, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies, about her book Pharmacy in Senegal: Gender, Healing, and Entrepreneurship (Indiana University Press 2014). You can also read that interview, Senegal's Pharmacies Are Much, Much Better Than Your Local Drugstore, on the blog.