Dr. Joseph Marotta, an orthopedic surgeon from Albany, New York, had always intended to use his medical skills to help people in developing countries. But the final inspiration didn’t come until he was 50 years old.
“I was sitting at Mass one day and there was an Italian missionary who was working in Sudan and Somalia,” Marotta told CNA Jan. 8.
The missionary, he recounted, said: “We need your money, I come to ask for your financial support. But if you think that putting a $20 bill in the collection plate today absolves you of your responsibility to your fellow man who is suffering, you’re wrong.”
Those words prompted Marotta to start the Medicus Christi project. He and his supporters aim to develop an orthopedic surgery center and a medical training center on the grounds of Holy Family Hospital and Nursing School in the village of Berekum in Ghana’s Brong Ahafo region.
Marotta said the project aims “to bring compassionate, modern medical care and medical training to the poor people of the developing world.”
In developed countries, people take for granted the ability to treat accident injuries and broken legs, not to mention arthritic conditions, congenital abnormalities, bone tumors and deformities.
In Ghana, the lack of medical care can be life-threatening.
“Most people are rural, subsistence farmers with a small piece of land. They grow their own food and sell some,” Marotta explained. “If the breadwinner gets hurt and breaks his leg, he’s going to starve. His family is going to starve, because there’s no social services to take care of them.”
“Most surgical care in the developing world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, is almost non-existent. Orthopedic care, in particular, is very, very lacking,” the doctor added. “Ghana, for instance, has about 25 million people. There are about 12 fully trained orthopedic surgeons in the whole country.”
Despite the poverty, the doctor also found inspiration from the country.
“The people of Ghana are extremely warm and welcoming,” he said, noting that the Catholic population in Africa is one of the fastest-growing in the world.
“The Church and the faith in West Africa and in Ghana is tremendously enthusiastic. The joy and the enthusiasm for the faith there is absolutely invigorating,” Marotta said. “They have a lot to offer and a lot to show us here about the joy of the religion, the way that faith can really impact society and benefit people.”
Marotta’s project got a special boost when his Ghanaian pastor introduced him to another clergyman from the country: Cardinal Peter Turkson, who now heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
“I couldn’t tell you where Ghana was on the map, six or seven years ago. And yet the Holy Spirit brought us together here,” the doctor recounted.
Four years ago Cardinal Turkson took him to Rome, where he had a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI.
“To be able to kneel before the Holy Father and promise to devote my life to this work of helping the poor in Africa was a very emotional, very special thing,” Marotta said.
Pope Francis also knows of Medicus Christi. Last October, the Papal Foundation made a $50,000 grant to the project.
Cardinal Turkson has become a mentor for the doctor. When Marotta voiced his doubts, frustrations and worries at the project’s progress, the cardinal would encourage him. The cardinal would cite the example of Jesus Christ’s apostles, the “timid souls” who began huddled in a room and fearing for their lives, but relied on the Holy Spirit to change the world.
“He’s really an extraordinary man,” Marotta said of Cardinal Turkson. “He’s a man obviously of tremendous faith and intellect. And yet he is a tremendous pastoral minister.”
Cardinal Turkson is a board member of Medicus Christi, as is Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany. Several Franciscan priests and brothers associated with Siena College in Albany are also assisting with the project. Marotta is an alumnus of the college, which he has served as a doctor for the sports team. He also treated many of the friars.
Marotta said Catholic Church sponsorship for Medicus Christi, especially the cardinal’s involvement, helps protect supplies from being stolen for sale on the black market or for political appropriation. The project’s planned use of the established, trusted Catholic health system in Ghana makes it much more likely to succeed.
Marotta also has ambitions for Medicus Christi to spread medical training throughout Africa.
“We intend to become the center of orthopedic education for the entire continent of Africa, bringing in surgeons and nurses and therapists to our center in Ghana to train them in techniques so they can go back and use these skills for their own people.”
“Right now there is nothing that exists like this in Africa,” he added. “When we are done we will be the largest orthopedic hospital in Africa and the only orthopedic training center of its kind in the developing world.”
Marotta’s project is working with the New York-based Giving to Ghana Foundation, which supports projects in the Diocese of Sunyani. Medicus Christi has raised enough funds to begin groundbreaking on its first phase: an orthopedic surgery and outpatient center addition to the present hospital. The groundbreaking is scheduled for spring or early summer of 2016.
The doctor asked for prayers for the project. He appealed for medical expert volunteers who can spend 2-3 weeks working in Ghana for caregiving and training.
He especially appealed for funds, saying financial support can “do a world of good.”
The Medicus Christi website is at medicuschristi.org.