A clinic rises in Liberia, for her brother

Contractors work on the health center Mary and Mark Kieh are building in Liberia. Mary Kieh dreams the 11,000-square-foot facility will be open by May. "We started this because we saw the need," she said of the idea she and her husband formulated in 2012.

Every morning, first thing, Mary Moore Kieh searches Craigslist for old EKG and X-ray machines. Maybe one day she'll get lucky and find an operating room light.

Kieh, 49, a nurse at Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital in Darby, is building a clinic in her native Liberia.

She knows she cannot save the world.

But she may save some people who come to her clinic.

And maybe they can help others. And perhaps just by trying, she will inspire others to make more of their own lives, to have hope, even a dream.

Kieh was born in Liberia, the West African nation recently devastated by Ebola. She was poor, never knowing whether there would be a meal, but she studied and became a midwife.

She came to America in 1998 with her husband, a Liberian doctor, granted asylum after persecution in Liberia's civil war.

She went to Delaware County Community College and became a registered nurse, starting at Mercy Fitzgerald in 2003.

Her brother died back home in 2011; his illness was never diagnosed.

When she sees the devastation back home, the hopelessness, the poor medical care, she has no choice but to follow her heart.

After living here, she understands how bad things are there. She knows they can change. She must try.

She constantly works extra shifts. She works a second job every other weekend at another hospital. She has spent $150,000 of her own money so far, at great personal sacrifice, to build a clinic near Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, one of the poorest countries in the world.

She named it the Robert Moore Memorial Healthcare Center in memory of her brother.

"As I went through my grieving process, it came to me," she says. "Maybe we could do something. Maybe we could build something, help somebody else so they don't have to suffer . . . Can we save the whole world? No. But my vision is even in death they should find peace, find dignity."

Kieh, who lives in Yeadon, has four children. Two came to America with her and her husband, Mark. Two were born here. All are citizens.

She and her husband, an infectious-diseases physician, conceived the idea for the clinic in 2012. They bought land and cleared it. They found a designer, then hired a contractor to build the 11,000-square-foot facility.

In 2013, her husband returned to Liberia to oversee the project.

He currently works as a site physician on a trial for a new Ebola virus vaccine, a project of the Liberian government and the National Institutes of Health. He monitors patients who have received the vaccine. In his free time, he oversees clinic construction.

Mary Kieh was in Liberia last summer with two of her children at the outset of the Ebola epidemic, which eventually killed nearly 5,000 people in the country.

And she was back in May, using three weeks of vacation, laying tile, much of which she bought here and shipped to Africa at a total cost of $24,000.

Ebola has changed Liberians. "They're learning a new way of life," Kieh says. "You have to stay away from people. You can't hug as you did before. You can't shake hands."

Once the clinic is open, she wants to move back to Liberia to run it with her husband.

She envisions the Robert Moore Memorial Healthcare Center as an outpatient facility, with beds for observation. She plans an emergency room, a short-procedure surgical unit, a pharmacy, and an inpatient maternity area.

Patients will have to pay a modest amount.

"We want to have a laboratory system where we can test for disease," Kieh said. "We need to be able to diagnose people and educate our patients."

Right now, however, her new building is empty.

"We didn't start this because we have the financial resources," she said. "We started this because we saw the need."

She is buying things here and plans to ship them in a 40-foot container. When she read that a local nursing home was closing, she bought wheelchairs, commodes, and beds.

She got an EKG machine off eBay, and an oxygen concentrator, blood pressure machine, and microscope from Craigslist. She's tried crowdfunding (www.gofundme.com/rmmhc).

Mercy Fitzgerald has donated old equipment it was replacing. She still needs medicines, supplies, and much more equipment.

"It's kind of like the Field of Dreams," said Maureen McCullian, Kieh's nursing supervisor. "Build it, and they will come. Her whole heart and soul is into this.

"I told her she could have had a good life here and not look back," McCullian added. "Many come here and don't look back. It really shows her character, sacrificing so much to help others."

Mary Kieh dreams her new health center will be open by May. She imagines many colleagues will come over for the grand opening, and then volunteer a week every year to help.

"I don't know how we're going to get there, but I know we will," she said. "I have a vision. If it means I work paycheck to paycheck, I will. If it means I have to work an extra shift, I will do it. But we have to make it work. Because the need is great."