May 18, 2024
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Dubroff: Building South Sudan health care from the ground up


Dr. Ken Waxman with medical student Malueth Angui in South Sudan.

Dr. Ken Waxman with medical student Malueth Angui in South Sudan.


Before he embarked on a quest to rebuild the health care system in South Sudan, Ken Waxman of Santa Barbara built a career any physician would be proud of.

One of the top trauma surgeons in Southern California, he was the head of emergency surgery at Cottage Hospital and later advised the Ventura County Medical Center in its competition to gain trauma center status.

When he retired several years ago, he volunteered with Doctors Without Borders figuring the temporary assignments would be a rewarding challenge.

The organization sent him to the world’s newest country, South Sudan, where he saw first-hand “the devastating impact of lack of health care.”

He described to me on the phone the desperate situation in South Sudan, where one in seven women die in childbirth and one in seven kids don’t make it past age 5.

But what the physician also saw was a path to better health for the population at large.
Inspired by one young man who became his assistant, he decided to start a grassroots effort to reboot South Sudan’s medical system, one doctor at a time.

There is no functioning medical school in South Sudan. So, today, thanks to his personal time and money, there are two students in their third year of medical school in places like Kenya and Nigeria.

“These kids are superstars. They have made it despite all the odds,” he said, adding that the 11 kids in various stages of getting medical degrees are all committed to coming back home to practice.

Waxman has started a nonprofit foundation called Future Doctors of South Sudan ( and a recent fundraising drive netted around $10,000.

But what he really needs is a grant of $100,000 to $300,000 a year for the next five years to create a larger cohort of medical students who can really put the South Sudan health care system on sounder footing.

At age 66, he said, “I’ve found more satisfaction out of helping build the infrastructure than being the infrastructure.”

Waxman and his wife Shirley were among the first people I met when I arrived in Santa Barbara to start the Business Times.

We’ve kept in touch over the years and I’ve heard a lot about Future Doctors of South Sudan over the past few months.

For a physician trained at the University of Chicago after an undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley, the prospect of fundraising has been pretty daunting.

And there is the unkind reality that it’s easier to get a $5 million grant to research a cure for an obscure disease than it is to raise $250,000 to rebuild a fractured nation’s primary health care system from the ground up.

But Waxman is convinced he’s on the right track. Without a functioning health care system, South Sudan will perpetually be on the ragged edge watching its most successful citizens leave as soon as they can get the money to move elsewhere.

When I caught up to Waxman he was back in Santa Barbara, where he keeps in touch with his students via email.

“These are kids who really want to create something different,” he said.

New focus sections

This week’s column on Dr. Ken Waxman seems particularly appropriate as the Business Times launches a series of quarterly Health Care focus sections.

In the coming weeks we’ll also be launching focus reports on Startups, Education & Careers, Travel & Tourism and Energy & Environment.

To get the full lineup you can check out our vastly improved website at and download our editorial calendar.

• Reach Editor Henry Dubroff at