As an 8-year-old in the city of Kumasi, Ghana, Oheneba Boachie-Adjei almost died of an upset stomach. Stricken with severe gastric pain and diarrhea from an unknown cause, he was taken to a local healer who prescribed an herbal remedy that did little. Extremely dehydrated, Boachie grew steadily weaker. “People were dying next to me,” he says. “I wasn’t going to make it.”
It’s a familiar story in Africa, where poor medical care can make even minor illnesses lethal. But Boachie’s tale ended well: His family found one of the country’s few physicians, and the doctor, who had returned to the former British colony after training in the United Kingdom, treated the young Boachie with Western medicine. “I was lucky,” he says, “to have a pediatrician who decided to come home.”
Four decades later Boachie, now 51, is returning the favor. One of New York City’s top orthopedic surgeons, he also runs the Foundation of Orthopedics and Complex Spine—an organization that has treated more than 500 bone disorders in Ghana and Barbados since 1998. Along with as many as 20 other volunteer doctors and nurses, Boachie operates for free on scoliosis, hip problems, club feet and other conditions. “He does a lot of surgeries other doctors are reluctant to do,” says Dr. John J. Grayhack, an orthopedic surgeon at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital. Adds Dr. Dale E. Rowe, a scoliosis specialist at Michigan State University in Kalamazoo: “He’s a very well-respected surgeon.”.
This year Boachie has begun raising money for a $5 million clinic in Ghana, where the annual per capita income is $400. There was a time when he was almost as poor. Not long after his birth, his father, Hiahene, an Ashanti chieftain, was toppled by rivals and forced to work as a farmer to support his wife, eight children and 30-member extended family. Boachie was raised by his illiterate mother, Dwomoh, who earned $1 a day selling vegetables. “I was born a prince,” he says, “but grew up a pauper.”
It was his physician-savior who inspired him to become a doctor. With the help of a government stipend, Boachie was able to attend boarding school. “He was very focused, very, very studious,” says classmate Kwadwo Boakye, now a Bronx obstetrician. While in his last year of high school in 1971, Boachie met 15-year-old Hilda Akonor; six months later he proposed. “I thought he was kidding,” says Hilda, now 47, who still lived with her parents at the time. But she soon realized he was serious.
He was also ambitious. On borrowed money, he traveled to New York City, promising to send for his fiancée when he had established himself. He arrived in 1972 with $12 and found a minimum-wage factory job as a machinist. Enrolling at Brooklyn College, he took both day and night classes, worked as a tutor to help supplement his grants and loans, graduated summa cum laude and landed a place at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. By then Boachie had saved enough to bring Hilda over. The couple wed at City Hall in 1975 and went on to raise three sons (Kwadwo, 26, a graduate student in public health at Harvard; Yaw, 23, a student at Tufts School of Medicine, and Kwame, 20, a student at West Virginia Wesleyan College).
While his career as an orthopedic surgeon flourished in the U.S., Boachie’s homeland was never far from his mind. Four years ago he launched his foundation with $100,000 of his own money (he branched out to Barbados at the invitation of a colleague in 1999). Conditions, especially at first, were less than optimal. “The power would go out,” says Dr. Frederick Maibauer, a Rochester, Mich., surgeon. “He got out the flashlights and kept working.”
What keeps Boachie charged up are patients like Patience Affotey, an 18-year-old Ghanian whose back he repaired. “She was inspired by what we’re doing and wants to be an orthopedic surgeon,” says Boachie. “Nothing could be any better than that.”
Jennifer Frey in New York City