UW grad student named "Medical Marvel"

By the time he reached age 12, six of Peter Kithene's siblings and both of his parents had died of undiagnosed diseases without ever receiving medical attention.

Now, a 25 year old graduate student at the University of Washington, he escaped a life where only 30 percent of the people have any access to any sort of health care and one in every four children die before their fifth birthday.

Kithene was recognized on a special first ever CNN Heroes telecast as the finalist in the "Medical Marvel" category for his work with the health care clinic he founded, Mama Maria Kenya. Since its opening in 2005 the clinic has served, and likely saved, more than 18,000 people. A $10,000 prize accompanies the award, most of which Kithene plans on using to further his clinic's goals.

Thinking back to his early years living in the poor Kenyan village of Muhuru Bay, the first thing he remembers is the lack of health care. While it was almost impossible for children like Kithene to leave their village, it was truly amazing that he was able to attend the UW.

Though his parents encouraged him to pursue his education despite having no formal education of their own, once they passed away the expectation was that Kithene would drop out of school as the eldest child and fish to support his siblings. However, he managed to continue to pursue his education in his grandmother's village nearby.

While in the seventh grade, Kithene met an American couple that was running a health care clinic there. He quickly befriended Larry and Stacy Crites and got involved with their operation.

Through that connection Kithene was drawn to the UW, and within months of moving the young student was working three jobs to support himself and send money back to Muhuru Bay to feed other orphans.

"Healthcare has always been the motivating factor in my pursuit of education," he said. "In a way, it's like I'm avenging the death of my parents and siblings so that other people don't suffer the lack of healthcare I saw in my childhood."

Not much later, the roots of Mama Maria began to appear simply, with seemingly small gestures. When friends asked what they could send with him back to Kenya, he turned down the usual gifts of clothing and soccer balls for Pepto-Bismol and bandages.

Kithene took out a small loan, and then told some of his friends about an idea he had to start a health clinic in his home village. Larry Crites, now a Mama Maria board member, invited him to present the idea at his company, and by the end he had raised $20,000.

Though Mama Maria is located in an ordinary rental building in Muhuru Bay, land has already been purchased on which to build a new facility. And it is clear that Kithene's image won't stop there.

"My vision is 'hope and opportunity,'" he said. "I want to offer health care and share with these people that I was one of them. Even more, we're creating jobs for the poorest of the poor. If you give them jobs they can earn respect and take care of their families."

This down-to-earth attitude is one of Kithene's many notable characteristics.

"One of the most incredible things about him is how humble he is and how in touch he's remained with his home community," Larry Crites said. "He has a great ability to bring people together. Peter's a humble guy with deep passions to help other people."

[Reach reporter Nick Feldman at news@thedaily.washington.edu.]

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