Tom Ross: Whittum shares Peace Corps challenges, rewards

Ralph Whittum, of Steamboat Springs, is eager to return to his Peace Corps post in the African country of Cameroon.

Ralph Whittum shouted in protest when the doctors insisted he leave his Peace Corps post in the African nation of Cameroon and return to Steamboat for shoulder surgery.

"I yelled and screamed and said, 'I do not want to come back!'" Whittum said. "After eight months, I was just hitting my stride, understanding who I could work with, and how I was going to have an impact on my village. I'm very eager to get back and pick up where I left off."

If there is a bright side to the tumble Whittum took resulting in his injury, it's that he gets the opportunity to tell his friends in Steamboat about his plan for reversing the medical brain drain impacting Cameroon. In particular, he's focused on the lack of a physician at the Protestant Health Center in his adopted village of Bankim.

Whittum shows slides and speaks at 6 p.m. Sept. 30 at Epilogue Book Co. on Lincoln Avenue.

He hopes to inspire members of his audience to make a small donation to an organization he has founded called African Doctors for Africa.

Cameroon society is a mix of subsistence agriculture and highly educated people, such as the geneticist in the city of Bangangte whose family hosted Whittum for an 11-week home stay.

Bangangte is emblematic of the problem Whittum hopes to whittle away at. The city is home to the University of the Mountains, which has 500 students enrolled in its medical school. Yet, there are only three doctors practicing in the city of 18,000.

That's primarily because the Central African franc is severely devalued against Western currencies, Whittum said.

New doctors graduate from the medical school and leave for Europe and the U.S., where they can earn far more money and then send cash home to their families.

That leaves the health clinic in Bankim, six hours away, without a doctor.

Whittum works there, assisting the nurses as they provide pre-natal care to women and inoculate infants against disease.

"They are wonderful people, and I'm pleased to be in that role," he said.

Bankim is a community where most of the residents scrape out a living using heavy steel hoes to work small plots of vegetables and tend coffee bushes. The economy works largely on the barter system.

"Many of them go for a month without more than 1,000 African francs (about $2.50) passing through their hands," Whittum said.

Whittum would like to do more for his village and has come up with a plan, endorsed by university officials, to use the devaluation of the currency to the advantage of his village. A full year's tuition for medical students at the University of the Mountains costs only $2,200. Whittum is proposing to raise that amount of money for medical students who will agree to spend a full year at the health center in Bankim.

A longtime ski patrolman here, Whittum left Steamboat on Sept. 19, 2007, for Africa.

"I didn't know what to expect," he recalled. "I was very, very excited about the possibilities. I experienced an adrenaline rush like you feel just before you go into a game. And I was very challenged by the idea that I wouldn't be speaking English."

Whittum had a head start on that process. He was a French major in college and put the language to use while completing his master's degree in international policy studies from the Monterrey Institute of International Studies. Later, Whittum spent one winter in a skiing exchange program in the French Alps.

"I've always felt vaguely guilty that I'd never used my college education for anything," he said.

Whittum's rehabilitation after surgery for a rotator cuff injury and torn tendons has progressed to the point that he hopes to be able to return to Cameroon in mid-October.

But first, he wants to tell you of his hope for African Doctors for Africa. An account in that name has been set up at Wells Fargo Bank.

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