Ted Hooley, right, and midwife Valerie Seremalet, left, with the first baby born at Senitizo’s clinic in the Central African Republic and its parents in March 2023. Hooley, a native of Stillwater, is president and CEO of Senitizo, a nonprofit organization that provides health services to people without access to healthcare in the Central African Republic. Senitizo focuses on primary care and community health, with an emphasis on maternal and child care. More than 60 babies have been born at Senitizo’s maternity ward since it opened. (Courtesy of Senitizo)

Thirteen percent of children in the Central African Republic die before they turn 5, and one out of every 100 women died during childbirth.

Stillwater native Ted Hooley is working to change all that.

Hooley is founder, president and CEO of Senitizo, a nonprofit organization that provides healthcare services at a clinic in the Central African Republic, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Senitizo, which focuses on primary care and community health, with an emphasis on maternal and child care, serves a population of more than 50,000 people “who previously didn’t have access to any health services,” Hooley said.

The health indicators in the Central African Republic are “some of the worst in the world,” according to Hooley. “It’s hard for people to really grasp how horrible it is. Understandably, people just don’t want to think that that type of situation exists in the world. These people have been marginalized, basically, since French colonial times. They’ve never had a break.”

Senitizo opened its clinic in 2021 in Bouchia, a remote village about 70 miles southwest of the country’s capital of Bangui. The name is a combination of Sango words that mean “the health of the people.” Sango and French are the official languages of the Central African Republic.

“We are the only doctor in the area, the only midwife in the area,” Hooley said. “The need is massive. It’s a place where people have had a really rough time. They haven’t had access to quality health care ever in their lives. We are providing healthcare to the people who need it most.”

Senitizo worked hard to build “local capacity” in the country of 5.5 million people, Hooley said.

When there is a crisis or an acute need in an underdeveloped country, international humanitarian organizations often “come in and fill that need, and it’s great,” Hooley said, but the Central African Republic has been in a humanitarian-crisis period for almost 25 years, he said.

“We know that isn’t going to change, unfortunately, and that there needs to be a new model,” Hooley said. “We’re still directly providing health services, but we are also building local capacity to be able to deal with these issues as they continue to come.”

The organization employs a local doctor, midwife, nurse, health assistants, midwife assistants, pharmacist, community health worker, support staff, groundskeeper and security guards.

“We wanted Senitizo to be built by Central Africans, operated by Central Africans for Central Africans — not something that is imposed from the outside,” said Hooley, the only non-African on staff.

50 people a day

Everyone, including Hooley, speaks Sango. Learning Sango was one of Hooley’s first tasks when he moved back to the Central African Republic in 2019. He had previously lived there for six months in 2016-2017.

Ted Hooley is president and CEO of Senitizo, a nonprofit organization that provides health services to people without access to healthcare in the Central African Republic. Hooley, 35, is a native of Stillwater. (Courtesy of Senitizo)

“The women patients at the clinic don’t speak French, and our most important programming is our maternal health, so not being able to speak with them would not be a good thing,” Hooley said. “That forced me to sit down and start studying and practicing, and people just really love it. I tell people, it’s like having a superpower. It instantly makes people smile and open up. … You can’t go there as an outsider who pretends to know everything. You need to go there, learn the language, treat everyone you see with respect and listen to them.

“We always talk with the people in the village, who make up most of our patients, before we offer any new service. People can see really fast if you’re there for selfish reasons and are looking to get something else, or if you are there to actually lend a helping hand and be part of the community.”

More than 20,000 patients — three-quarters of them children — have been treated at the clinic since it opened in December 2021. The clinic serves about 50 people a day, and people travel great distances — by foot — to make their appointments.

“We have people who will regularly wake up at 3, 4 in the morning and walk 20 miles to get to the clinic with their little sick kid on their back, and then they’ll get their child treated, and then walk back home,” Hooley said. “It is the only quality medical care in the area. It’s either that or nothing else.”

Medical staff provide pre- and post-natal care, along with delivery services, to expectant mothers. The women also receive nutrition supplements (iron, folic acid, vitamin A), preventative treatment for malaria and other parasitic infections that put a pregnancy at risk, as well as tetanus vaccination, he said.

Tests are done to identify anemia and other common dangerous pregnancy-related conditions such as preeclampsia, as well as determining HIV status to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS. Staff help all expectant mothers create a birth plan to return to the clinic for safe delivery.

The clinic last year acquired an ambulance to help women during obstetric emergencies. The ambulance transports patients to the closest government hospital, which is 30 miles north of the clinic.

Staff at Senitizo assemble Cesarean section kits and post-op kits that are sent in the ambulance.

“They have all the medicines and supplies for operations because at the hospital, they don’t have those things,” Hooley said. “You can’t do a Caesarian if you don’t have the anesthetic and all the antibiotics that prevent infection post-op.”

Over the past six months, eight women suffering from obstetric emergencies and their babies have survived thanks to Senitizo’s ambulance program — women and children who most likely would have been counted among the country’s mortality statistics otherwise, according to Hooley.

A lucky find

Hooley lives in the country’s capital of Bangui, and his house doubles as Sanitizo’s office. Security is tight, he said.

“As a foreigner, there are certain security things that we have to deal with because it is one of the poorest countries in the world,” he said. “If people think you have money, you’re going to be kind of a target for crime.”

Hooley visits the clinic once a month for several days. The drive takes close to three hours over mostly dirt roads.

Administrative work must take place in Bangui, he said, where only 25 percent of the city is electrified. “Once you step out of the capital, there’s no internet,” he said. “We are all solar at the clinic.”

Opening the clinic in Bouchia involved “a little bit of luck,” he said. Through a contact, Hooley learned about “a health-clinic structure that was 10 years old that had never been used,” he said. “We went down and checked it out, and it kind of provided the perfect place — I call it our laboratory — to see if this was possible.”

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