When Dr. Jeff Kempf, retired director of the global health program and emergency medicine physician, counts his blessings, he often thinks about Haiti and its people. It was because of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, that Dr. Kempf was able to develop a transformative program to bring health care and support services to children in need throughout the world.
In the process, it’s brought hundreds of Akron Children’s Hospital clinicians, staff and residents together through volunteer opportunities that fostered the hospital’s community mission and reputation on a global scale.
Dr. Kempf didn’t set out to develop the global health program and build a collaborative between Akron Children’s, 14 North American academic health systems and Haiti’s only pediatric hospital. But maybe it was inevitable since both his parents were committed to community service. Dr. Kempf’s dad, a plumber, drove that message home when, on subzero nights, he ventured out to thaw his neighbors’ frozen pipes. Dr. Kempf and his siblings often helped and never saw their father charge for these after-hour calls.
Luckily, the woman Dr. Kempf married, Ellen, retired Children’s pediatrician, has the same passion to help others. In fact, they met and fell in love while serving in a federally funded program that provided health care services to sugarcane migrants and their families. And like his parents, they involved their 3 children in community service projects, traveling with them on school breaks for mission trips and unfunded medical work abroad.
The family’s volunteer activities resonated with many of Dr. Kempf’s colleagues, including Dr. John Pope, a pediatric intensivist. When a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, Dr. Pope was one of the first people Dr. Kempf asked to travel to the country to provide assistance. The two often worked in tandem on global health initiatives, such as ensuring residents who chose a global health elective were properly prepared for medical conditions and situations they encountered in resource limited environments.
When Dr. Kempf retired earlier this year, Dr. Pope took over leadership of the global health program. Now, Dr. Kempf is spending more time with his family and grandchildren and pursuing causes that he and his wife care about, including children’s literacy. Recently, they helped set up a book program for children in the Dominican Republic at a new clinic Akron Children’s opened in that country.
What brought you to Children’s?
After working with migrant farm workers and their families in Florida, I decided to get my pediatric emergency medicine fellowship here. My wife is from Ohio. I told her I wouldn’t be in the snow more than 2 years, and that was 30 years ago!
Have you always worked in the same department and role?
For 28 of the 30 years I was here, I was an emergency room physician before retiring. I continued to lead the global health team part-time until recently. I’ve held multiple roles here, some that have allowed me to work with and mentor colleagues and residents. I’ve served as director of pediatric clerkship at Northeast Ohio Medical University, residency program director and Children’s medical staff president. In 2010, I became director of the global health program.
What have your biggest contributions been while here?
Launching our global health program after the 2010 Haitian earthquake. Richard Gustafson, retired emergency room staff nurse, introduced me to his sister-in-law, a nun and nurse at St. Damien’s Pediatric Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Through her, we met Father Rick Frechette, the hospital’s founder. By June, 2010, Children’s had signed an affiliation agreement with St. Damien’s, Haiti’s only pediatric hospital.
Since establishing this affiliation, we’ve traveled to Haiti regularly to provide care to Haitian children. Our team varies and includes doctors, residents, nurses, educators, radiologists, purchasing folks, etc. Children’s leadership team has gone with us, including Bill Considine (Akron Children’s CEO Emeritus).
We’ve provided St. Damien’s with hands-on help, donations of supply and medical equipment and the collaborative formation. It’s enabled them to develop a pediatric residency program and train and hire a pediatric cardiologist.
In some instances, our program has brought children with life-threatening conditions to Akron for surgery before returning them to their families.
We’ve added other components to the global health program, such as medical mission opportunities and global health conferences. In November, the program expanded, with Dr. Pope and Children’s leaders, including Grace Wakulchik, president and chief executive officer, dedicating a second clinic in Dominican Republic to serve special needs children.
“It’s been a remarkable experience to give in these environments,” Dr. Kempf said. “It changes the lives of many people, from our patients to our employees. There’s no endpoint to what we can do to help.”
Read more blog posts about our team’s efforts in Haiti.