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03.11.11

Meet the Visionary Behind Africa's 'Floating Clinic'

Dr. Amy Lehman, HP's Gabi Zedlmayer, and 'Nightline's Cynthia McFadden on bringing modern healthcare to the developing world.

Dr. Amy Lehman is the Amazonian like surgeon whose mission is to build a state of the art medical clinic--on a boat. At the Hudson Theatre on Friday morning—day two of Newsweek and The Daily Beast's "Women in the World" summit—Lehman cuts a striking appearance. With a high ponytail hanging below her waist, she is clad in a billowing striped top and dramatic African necklace. At the prompting of this panel's moderator, Nightline co-host Cynthia McFadden, she stands up to reveal a massive back tattoo—of the lake, called Tanganyika--where she is providing medical aid to millions.

Lehman is a trained cardio-thoracic surgeon who was in her residency at the University of Chicago when she took a vacation, five years ago, with her young son and a few friends. They went to the Lake Tanganyika region, which borders four countries in East Africa, where 12 million people live (3 million on its shoreline).

Lehman was struck by how isolated the region's inhabitants were, without running water, electricity, or basic medical care. And she had an idea: “The only way you could treat people with any regularity is if you did it on a boat,” she thought.

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Dr. Amy Lehman (Katherine Wolkoff for Newsweek)

She went back to Chicago and was on night duty at the ICU that week. At the end of her week's shift, scrambling to preserve the lives of the elderly and sick, on ventilators, with little chance of recovering their mental lives, she couldn’t help but think about the incredible expense being poured into keeping them alive. But just how much? At the end of the week, she came up with a figure: $2 million.

Lehman was dumbstruck: $2 million could have saved 10,000 lives in the Lake Tanganyika region.

So she packed up and shipped off. Her vision for one massive floating clinic hasn't quite been realized yet, but she's been renting scrappy vessels from local ship owners to provide care. She estimates she needs $5 million to complete the floating clinic—and $25 million more for an endowment.

But how do you go to that next step when the problem feels so huge? That's where Gabi Zedlmayer, the head of Hewlitt-Packard’s global social innovation program—which helps get ideas off the ground in developing countries all over the world—comes in. Zedlmayer has time only to describe one or two of the hundreds of grassroots programs HP has nurtured globally: fighting counterfeit drugs in Nigeria; digitizing the health care of HIV positive mothers and their babies throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. But now, she announces, she is in discussion with how to elevate Amy Lehman’s vision into reality.

“I feel pretty good, 20 minutes, change the world, what more do you want?” McFadden joked.



Photos and Story: More on Dr. Amy Lehman's mission to build a floating hospital