Using His Gifts to Fight Chronic Disease in the D.R.

Using His Gifts to Fight Chronic Disease in the D.R.

Four times a year, Hans Dethlefs IV, MD, BS’87, makes a weeklong trip to the Dominican Republic (D.R.) to provide health care.

Dethlefs’ service in the D.R. doesn’t take place through Creighton, but the University played a part in its genesis.

As an undergraduate, he says Creighton put him on the path to community service through spring break service trips and spiritual retreats. After attending the University for his bachelor’s degree, he made health care service trips through Creighton over the next three summers to the Institute for Latin American Concern (ILAC) Center while a medical student at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

He looks back fondly on those experiences because they involved “living in a culture that is very gracious and welcoming.” It also combined service with opportunities for spiritual reflection and sharing.

“Those experiences, and another I had in Mexico, were all formative and affirming as far as my vocation. I had in my head that was the kind of work I wanted to do, but until you have the experience, it is more of a theory and less of a proven desire.”

The father of three and Omaha family physician says today, for him, “The ultimate bottom line, in light of our Catholic faith and the bountiful gifts we are given, is that Creighton highlighted the importance of living our faith. For me, that really meant taking all the gifts I had been given and sharing them freely with the people who need it most.”

After he became a physician, Dethlefs and his wife, Andrea Nigro Dethlefs, BS’89, who is also a Creighton grad, moved with their children to Honduras for three years, where he provided medical services through a lay Catholic organization, the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, which is now named Unbound.

When he came back to Omaha, he began practicing at the Indian-Chicano Health Center, which evolved into Omaha’s OneWorld Health Centers, where he today is a family physician and medical director for an electronic health record network of nine community health centers called Heartland Community Health Network. OneWorld provides affordable health care to the area’s vulnerable and underserved populations.

But living out his faith by caring for those in the community who have limited health options was not enough.

Dethlefs is medical director and board president for Chronic Care International (CCI), an organization founded by Charles Filipi, MD, professor of medicine at Creighton’s School of Medicine (and now chairman of the CCI board), and his daughter-in-law, Linda Filipi, a nurse educator. Through Filipi’s work as a surgeon with the ILAC Center, the Filipis learned there were great needs among Dominicans with chronic conditions.

“We were told that there were many complications from diabetes and hypertension in the Dominican Republic,” Filipi says. “We organized a patient assessment and saw 300 ILAC diabetes patients. We documented that many of them were not able to afford adequate care. So we obtained a grant from Chicago Cubs Charities and USAID and started Chronic Care International. About a year and half later, I asked Dr. Dethlefs to join us as medical director.”

CCI partners with local and international organizations to help provide programs for preventing and treating chronic diseases; education for professionals; self-care education for patients; community health support; electronic medical records and other information technology; medications, medical equipment and supplies; and laboratory testing. It solicits funds from private donors and church members.

The organization supplies medications that it procures in the United States or through a medication distributing company in Europe. There are many who serve on the 11-member CCI board who have ties to Creighton.

Dethlefs’ frequent trips to the two CCI clinics in the rural D.R. focus on patients with diabetes and hypertension. “We serve 940 patients right now in the Dominican Republic, and we hope to eventually expand to other Latin American countries.”

Proof that CCI is making a difference is easy to come by, but Dethlefs recalls one patient in particular. “One gentleman felt awful and didn’t know why. He wasn’t able to work and his family was depending on him. He had lost a lot of weight. We determined he had diabetes and, after treatment, he has been able to start working again.”

Dethlefs’ Creighton-D.R. connection has come full circle as his eldest child, daughter Allison, BA’15, was a participant in Creighton’s Encuentro Dominicano program when she was a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“She also has gone down to the CCI clinics. She has helped us find sponsors and even taught Zumba classes with patients,” he says, adding that she is currently in Bolivia as a Franciscan lay missioner.

For his part, Filipi says the Creighton-D.R. connection has been the gateway for his work in developing nations, which includes, in addition to CCI, the nonprofit Hernia Repair for the Underserved (herniahelp.org), which has branched out to other Western Hemisphere countries.

“The vision of the founders and the dedication of all those who have developed the ILAC Center and its reputation in the Dominican Republic as the premier nonprofit health care provider have made it possible to build other programs using the in-place infrastructure.”

Filipi says the work of the ILAC Center “has been a great gift to me, my wife, Frances, who joins me on every trip, and other family members. We have learned about poverty and the graceful and wonderfully generous people of the Dominican Republic. Their joyful spirituality has been a powerful lesson for us all.”