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FULFILLMENT OF A DREAM This January, Sister Chilee Okoko’s dream of bringing health care access to her hometown of Ameke Abam, Nigeria, became reality when TessPat Foundation Hospital opened its doors. TOP LEFT: Sr. Chilee and some girls from Ameke Abam celebrate the new hospital. BOTTOM LEFT: A surgery at the new hospital. TOP RIGHT: The hospital exterior. BOTTOM RIGHT: Bishop Michael Ukpong of Umahia, Nigeria, poses with some priests and sisters in front of the new hospital's chapel.

By John Andrews

It was a thought that first came to Sister Chilee Okoko when tragedy struck her home village in Nigeria 35 years ago.

She had just made her first profession of vows for the Daughters of Mary Mother of Mercy religious community and the Catholic community in rural Ameke Abam was gathered for a Eucharistic Procession to mark the Feast of Christ the King. But the day turned deadly when an enraged motorist plowed through the crowd, killing 13 people. The nearest hospital was 45 miles away and many of those struck by the vehicle might have been saved if they could have received medical attention sooner, Sr. Chilee believes.

“I said if I ever get the opportunity in this life, I will help to build a small clinic in this place,” she recalls. “It never left my mind.”

In January, nearly 35 years after the tragedy, Sr. Chilee’s dream of bringing health care access to her hometown became a reality when TessPat Foundation Hospital opened its doors.

“Now we have something here in our neighborhood,” exclaimed Father Donatus Okou, a priest of the Diocese of Umuahia, at the Jan. 2 dedication of the hospital. “Through the instrumentation of Sr. Chilee we have something close to the people.”

Sr. Chilee has served as the Director of the Department of Life, Dignity and Justice for the Diocese of San Bernardino since 2012. She is also a medical doctor who has worked tirelessly to strengthen the diocese’s health care ministry, forging collaborative relationships with local health care providers, public health departments and hospitals. All the while, she has continued to work on her hospital project back home.

And what began as an idea to build a small clinic blossomed into a full-scale hospital. Named after patrons St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and St. Patrick, the new hospital consists of eight buildings; it contains 100 beds and has departments for internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, cardiology and neurology. The place also bears the fingerprints of the Diocese of San Bernardino.

Sr. Chilee began to actively work on planning and fundraising for the building of the hospital when she arrived in the Diocese in 2010. Over the years she sought and received International Sacrificial Giving Grants from the Diocese with support from Bishop Gerald Barnes, whose name appears on the dedication plaque at TessPat Foundation Hospital. With the support from the late Monsignor Tom Wallace, the Diocese made two different Mission Appeals to raise funds for the hospital.

Most of the beds at TessPat Hospital came from the Diocese thanks to the generosity of Providence St. Mary Regional Medical Center in Apple Valley and Lestonnac Free Clinic, and Sr. Chilee herself, who paid the steep cost of having them shipped to Africa. Two years ago, when an ultrasound machine, X-ray machine and lab equipment was needed, Palm Desert’s Sacred Heart Parish, under the leadership of then Pastor Howard Lincoln, came through with another grant.

Most recently, when it was time to turn on the lights at the hospital, Bishop Alberto Rojas approved another grant from the Mission Office to purchase a needed power supply.

The Diocese of Orange also conducted a Mission Appeal to raise money for the hospital. The Knights of Columbus and the Knights of Peter Claver pitched in, and Sr. Chilee wishes to thank the Walter family of Lake Arrowhead, the Kahn family of Orange County and the Somjak family of Michigan for their generous support.

Ed Gerber, Executive Director of Lestonnac Free Clinic, said that when he met with Sr. Chilee through the years she never failed to mention the progress of the hospital and the ongoing needs of the project.

“It was Sister’s real tenacity, always keeping it in front of me,” said Gerber. “You could tell in her eyes that it was near and dear to her heart.”

One aspect of the new hospital that is especially near and dear to Sr. Chilee is the obstetrics unit, which she hopes will help address the sky high infant and maternal mortality rates in Ameke Abam.

“Pregnant women are not receiving enough care there,” she explained.

Other health challenges endemic to the area that will be addressed at the new hospital include diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and severe malnutrition. The hospital complex also includes living quarters for doctors and nurses who work there, which was critical in the effort to attract staff for the hospital. Because the hospital was inspired by Sr. Chilee’s Catholic faith and that of the village, a beautiful chapel for patients and staff was also included.

Ask her what it cost to build the hospital and Sr. Chilee will tell you it was such a long and incremental journey, with contributions from so many sources, she doesn’t know the exact number. “It was trickling in slow and steady,” she said, adding that she contributed all of her personal savings to the project.

“I kind of emptied myself into it,” she said. “I have this fulfillment and joy now that it is finished.”