Humanitarian of the Year

Marta Klein, PA

After taking her first mission trip to Mexico with her church following her college graduation, Marta Klein, PA, knew she wanted to work internationally. “It really made an impact on my heart as I worked with the people,” she says. About 13 years later, Klein, the recipient of AAPA’s 2017 Humanitarian Award of Year, now works in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where she devotes her time addressing the extremely high rates of pediatric malnutrition in the area.

Klein became interested in becoming a PA in 2000, after her mother was in a car accident. “She was in the ICU for four days before she died, and I watched the medical staff work with her,” Klein says. “I began to think that PA school might be a good option for me to combine working internationally and my love of medicine.”

Klein is from Rozel, Kansas, and has lived and worked in Salina, Kansas, since 1993.  She began the PA program at Wichita State University in 2002, where she had the opportunity to go to Bolivia for a three-and-a-half-week international rotation. Once again, she fell in love with the people. Years later, after going on several more short-term mission trips to Bolivia and Kenya, Klein says, “I realized I wanted to develop relationships with people and work on issues that could not be solved in a two-week trip.”

Following Her Heart

After spending several years researching options, in March 2011 Klein went to the DRC with the Evangelical Covenant Church to work in Karawa Hospital for two years. In the DRC, acute malnutrition affects three million children under age five, according to the World Food Programme.

Klein had done research on the Moringa oleifera tree prior to going to Congo.  The leaves of the tree are a complete protein.  They had been used in several countries to help treat severe malnutrition by drying the leaves and crushing it into a powder.  She discovered shortly after arriving in Congo that the tree had been planted in several areas in the region.

“We decided to work on a garden of these [trees] near the hospital to help severely malnourished children,” Klein says. In 15 months, 1,200 trees had been planted, and the hospital staff continues to make Moringa leaf powder today. During this term, Klein also led the development of a basic nutrition education course and worked with local healthcare providers to train 77 community health workers in one year.

In 2013, Klein returned to the United States and reflected upon the many challenges during her two-year term in the DRC.  She didn’t have an orientation at the hospital in Karawa, which made it very difficult to adjust as a new person to international medicine.  The struggles with communicating in French and Lingala—the local trade language, and then a third local tribal language also being spoken, was an enormous barrier to communicate with colleagues and patients.  She even experienced a robbery when her apartment was broken into one night while she was sleeping and several of her belongings were taken.

Improving Rate of Malnutrition

Ultimately though, “I could not get the children out of my mind,” Klein says. “I really felt like we had just started doing good work right before I had to leave, and I wanted to see if I could keep the momentum going to improve the rate of malnutrition in the area.” In 2014, Klein returned for her next term of three years.

In a recommendation letter written to support Klein for the AAPA award, Eric L. Gunnoe, M.D., who volunteers at Karawa Hospital once a year through the Paul Carlson Partnership, points out she has made enormous personal sacrifices in choosing to work in the DRC.

“Most of us American providers, including me, are busy sending our kids to private colleges and saving money for retirement,” writes Dr. Gunnoe, a pediatric intensivist at The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center. “Marta’s willingly and joyfully given up these fundamental American preoccupations in order to devote herself to this very important work. She’s made a commitment to her Congolese colleagues, patients, and friends, and she’s standing by it.”

Klein says her accomplishments are possible because of the people around her: the team of missionaries she works with on a daily basis, those in the villages and at the hospital. Ruth Wemo, a Congolese nurse whom Klein mentored and trained, became director of the Karawa Hospital’s nutrition department this past year.

“I would not have been able to do the work I have done [or] imagine doing the future work without recognizing how important these people are in my life,” she says.

AAPA 2017 Award Recipients