At age 19, Amy Hehre was not only dreaming of her future – she was drawing the blueprints for it. It wasn’t a suburban dream home she was planning. Instead, Amy mapped out in detail a facility that could care for terminally ill orphans in Kenya, a place she had just visited for the first time on a pre-professional health care mission.
Her vision came to life four years later, when she and her husband, Robert, came across the real-life rendition of Amy’s vision – an 11,000 square-foot building in Suna, Migori Kenya. Amy recounts she and her husband were stunned at how similar the building, affectionately called “Blue,” was to her sketches from years before.
“It even has the verandas we had imagined,” Amy said, “a place for rocking chairs, to bring the children outdoors, when they will not likely have the energy to play outside.”
A lot has happened since Amy originally visited Kenya in 2012 and sketched her plans for a medical facility. Amy, a Somerset native, is now 23 and studying to be a physician assistant at the University of Kentucky College of Health Sciences' Morehead Campus. Her desire to become a physician assistant has its roots in Kenya as well. After her initial visit, Amy researched the position referred to as “clinical officer” in Kenya, and it turned out that a physician assistant was the closest match.
Amy said the Physician Assistant Studies program has provided her with the opportunity to gain a great deal of experience working with patients, even before the standard clinical year of PA school. She puts this hands-on knowledge to use on the couple’s trips to Kenya two to three times each year.
“My favorite part about working with patients is getting to know people … and getting to hear their stories,” Amy said. “Whenever I go in, I don’t see someone as a map or a piece of technology I need to fix. I see them as someone’s daughter, as someone’s friend, as someone’s cousin, favorite student, best friend. So that really drives me – to see them holistically.”
One of the critical advantages for the College’s PA students is the opportunity for extensive experience with patient care and the integration of community outreach.
“We are delighted that we were able to attract a student with such an incredible dedication to outreach,” said Scott M. Lephart, Ph.D., dean of the College of Health Sciences. “It is a privilege to be part of Amy’s story and to provide her with the skills, knowledge, and experiences that she will take with her to the children of Kenya. We’ve all heard the expression ‘I can’t be everywhere.’ Well, the College of Health Sciences can be everywhere through the care and healing provided by our alumni, faculty, and students.”
The story of Amy and Robert began 10 years ago, long before the couple realized their shared desire to bring health care to Kenya. The two met at a summer church camp and quickly became friends. Although they kept in touch, it took seven years to discover that both wanted to be physician assistants and wanted to provide health care to underserved areas abroad.
“Then we knew it was not a coincidence. It was something more,” Amy said.
Amy and Robert, 26, who works as a physician assistant in LaGrange, were married in 2015. Their shared vision for a life serving the terminally ill orphans of Kenya has coalesced into near-future reality, with the couple anticipating a move shortly after Amy’s graduation in 2017.
To support their efforts, the couple started a nonprofit foundation, Ovi & Violet International, named for Amy’s late nephew, Ovidio, and for the healing power and peaceful symbolism of the violet. Amy’s sister lived in Guatemala and served as Ovidio’s primary caregiver until his death at the age of three.
“It’s a lot of what inspired what we do and to live up to his legacy,” Amy said. “Even though he only had three years, and it’s the most painful thing we’ve ever been through, we would do it all again to have that same joy in our lives. Some of the kids we are taking care of won’t live longer than six months, but it’s important for them to know they will be remembered, and that they will be missed.”
Through Ovi & Violet International, the couple will focus on serving some of the 3.6 million Kenyan orphans – those with the most critical cases of cancer, HIV/AIDS, and blood diseases. These terminally ill orphans cannot receive the medical care they need in Kenya’s orphanages, many of which run on a monthly budget of $400 or less, barely covering educational and nutritional expenses, according to Amy.
The couple is currently securing the future medical facility, which will be renovated to become a 40-bed inpatient/outpatient clinic. The entire second floor will house clinic space, with half dedicated to the most critical cases that require 24-hour care. The other half will house a clinic to provide free vaccinations and well-child exams for other orphans, providing a key outreach service to Kenya’s orphanages.
The future Ovi & Violet facility is located between Kenya’s two major hospitals, where children will go to receive major medical treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and bone marrow transplants. The couple believe this is key to supporting the local economy, as well as making their facility a safe harbor for the children who will call it home.
To some of the outside world, the couple realizes their endeavors seem challenging and downright monumental. But Amy is quick to point out that this is their dream come true.
“It’s not very often someone gets to say this is the only life they want,” Amy said. “It is the most rewarding thing we’ve ever done, and we can’t see ourselves doing anything else. It’s a really easy choice for us. It’s just home, and whenever we are there, it feels right. We have so much purpose there. We get asked all the time what is our exit strategy – we don’t have one. I want to build up this facility to the point that I wouldn’t mind dying in it … that I would entrust my own life to it.”
The overall message Amy hopes to convey is one of hope and healing, not sadness.
“People say ‘isn’t that going to be a sad life?’ and we always tell them that we aren’t afraid of being sad,” Amy said. “We’re afraid of what will happen if no one takes the risk to love them.”
The facility will need a team to operate smoothly. Amy foresees the need for nurses, social workers, chaplains, nutritionists, physicians and more. The couple would like to maintain ties with UK as well through possible medical missions to the facility. In the meantime, there are several ways to support Ovi & Violet. The couple is planning a renovation mission trip in December 2016 and volunteers are welcome. Please visit their website for more information.
UK is the University for Kentucky. At UK, we are educating more students, treating more patients with complex illnesses and conducting more research and service than at any time in our 150-year history. To read more about the UK story and how you can support continued investment in your university and the Commonwealth, go to: uky.edu/uk4ky. #uk4ky #seeblue