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Chris Atwater

Updated: Feb 5

I began my career as an Intelligence Specialist in the United States Marine Corps, serving in Beirut, Lebanon after the 1983 Marine Corps barracks bombing. After leaving the service in 1986 due to a knee injury, I struggled to find work in my field in North Carolina. I took a job as a truck driver delivering dialysis supplies, which led to a position as a Patient Care Technician at Durham Dialysis in North Carolina.

Despite enjoying the truck driving job, I knew it wasn't my long-term plan. I wanted to pursue engineering, so I attended night school at Durham Technical College while working as a technician. After three and a half years, I graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering Technologies and began my career as a Biomedical Technician.

In 1996, I relocated to Augusta, Georgia to work as a manager for Vivra, a dialysis company. The company was acquired by Gambro within a year, and I worked there for six years before being recruited by DaVita in 2003.

In 2006, I learned about medical missions to Africa at a Davita nationwide meeting. Intrigued by the idea, I volunteered and was selected to lead the first Bridge of Life mission to Yaoundé, Cameroon. The experience was challenging but rewarding, and I was deeply moved by the dire conditions I saw in the local clinics. This inspired me to do more, and I volunteered for several more missions with Bridge of Life.

In 2013, I transitioned to part-time work with Bridge of Life, and supported the set up of a Davita International clinic in Saudi Arabia, which is where we met. By the end of 2014, I was working full-time with Bridge of Life. I'm grateful for the opportunity to make a significant impact in multiple countries, something I never dreamed possible when I first started. I've always been a visual person, and I used to keep a map of Africa on my desk, a constant reminder of my goal to make a difference there. Today, I've worked on six of the seven continents, far exceeding my initial vision. This journey has been a testament to the power of belief, hard work, and the support of others.

How many Bridge of Life missions have you led?

I have completed 145+ missions in 38 countries where I've either gone, trained, presented or provided support for Bridge of Life and non-Bridge of Life hemodialysis related projects.

How does the Mission of Bridge of Life align with your personal values?

In my work, I primarily engage with individuals from low to middle-income countries, often people of color. This is deeply personal for me. When I see people in desperate circumstances, I'm driven by the knowledge that there are resources that could help them. This is what life is all about for me.

Now, at 61, I'm in a stage of my life where I'm focused on creating a living legacy. I'm thinking about how I can empower others, not just financially, but by passing on knowledge and skills to technicians and nurses around the globe. I derive more satisfaction from serving than being served, from giving rather than receiving. This aligns perfectly with my work at Bridge of Life and my personal values. My driving force is the opportunity to help people and give back. This is how my work aligns with who I am.

Can you share a memorable experience from one of your medical missions?

One of the most impactful experiences in my career was during my first mission in Cameroon. There, I met a young woman named Nicole, who was the first patient we dialyzed. At the time, the standard for dialysis in Cameroon was a treatment every one to three days due to dialysis center operational conditions, if you were lucky. Nicole was in poor health when we started, but our clinic was able to provide three treatments a week at a low cost, significantly improving the quality of her care.

(Nicole and Chris in August 2007)

Nicole and I stayed in touch until her passing a few years later. Her story deeply affected me, as I realized there were many others like her who we could help. Without our clinic, Nicole might have lived for less than a year due to the high mortality rate in the local clinics, which was around 40% due to inadequate and infrequent dialysis.

Nicole's story inspired me to make the necessary sacrifices to continue this work, despite the challenges. It's been tough on my family, with moments like missing my daughter Mia’s 16th birthday while I was in Cameroon. However, their support has been invaluable, particularly my wife Stephanie. Without them, I couldn't do what I do.

So, Nicole's story is one of the most memorable moments for me. It's a poignant reminder of why I do this work and the lives we can touch and extend through proper care.

What is the most challenging part of your work with Bridge of Life?

One of the most challenging aspects of my work is managing the emotional toll it takes. For instance, after spending 45 days in Cameroon, I became deeply attached to the people and the mission. I was ordered to return home, but I felt there was still so much more to do. The departure was emotionally draining, and I found myself struggling to adjust back home, even during joyous occasions like Thanksgiving.

This experience taught me a valuable lesson about maintaining emotional boundaries in my work. While I strive to do as much as I can, I've learned to accept that I'm one person with limited resources. Even with abundant resources, as I learned in Saudi Arabia, there's no guarantee of solving all problems.

Despite this, my emotional connection to the people I serve remains strong. I'm a deeply emotional person who believes in giving from the heart. I consider the people I work with as family, and I'm committed to never leaving them in need. However, I've learned to manage these emotions better to maintain my effectiveness and mental well-being in the face of the challenges I encounter.

How has the work changed your perspective on healthcare?

My work in medical missions has significantly shaped my understanding of global healthcare. Initially, I made many assumptions about healthcare in the regions I visited. However, as I delved deeper, I realized the stark disparities between healthcare in developed and developing countries.

In low to middle-income countries, individuals often find themselves at the bottom end of healthcare provision. Unlike in the U.S., where even non-citizens can receive regular dialysis treatments, in developing countries, the lack of funding and resources often leaves patients with limited options. This was starkly illustrated to me by a man in Kenya who said he'd rather have HIV/AIDS than renal failure due to the availability of funding for HIV/AIDS and the financial drain of renal failure treatment on families.

This experience made me appreciate the healthcare system we have in the U.S. While it's not perfect, it generally provides care for those in need, unlike in many developing countries where individuals often have limited options and face a diminished quality of life due to inadequate treatment. This has been a profound lesson about the global disparities in healthcare.

Are there other times where you've felt as though your work has had a significant impact?

Two missions stand out in my memory: Bangladesh and Syria. In Bangladesh, I conducted an assessment of a partner clinic and was deeply disturbed by the conditions. Despite a terrorist attack in Dhaka that led to travel restrictions, I convinced my superiors and my wife to let me go and set up a new clinic. I had to do all the work myself, from setting up the machines to training the nurses. Today, that clinic has rippled change across Bangladesh, with the partner becoming the biggest provider of dialysis in Bangladesh with 20 clinics and continuous training and support by Bridge of Life. The impact we made there fills me with pride.

In Syria, I trained biomedical technicians from the Syrian American Medical Society in Amman, Jordan, and Gaziantep, Turkey. Despite the ongoing conflict, these technicians risk their lives daily to provide healthcare in their country. Our bond transcended cultural and religious differences, and they became like family to me. Their courage and dedication in the face of danger make them the true heroes of healthcare in my eyes. Despite the risks, they continue to serve their communities, even when hospitals are targeted and bombed. Their commitment to their work, even in the face of potential death, is truly inspiring.

What are the greatest personal lessons that you've learned as a result of your work?

Two key lessons have emerged from my work in global healthcare. First, the quality of healthcare services, especially life-sustaining treatments like hemodialysis, should not be compromised based on the patient's geographical location. Everyone, regardless of whether they are in a low or middle-income country, deserves quality healthcare.

Second, I've learned that people, irrespective of race, religion, nationality, or ethnicity, are fundamentally the same. Most are respectful, caring, and supportive if treated with genuineness and respect. I've worked in diverse countries, sometimes being the first black man people have encountered. In these situations, I've had the opportunity to challenge and dispel prejudices. In most cases, people respect hard work and a commitment to quality care.

I firmly believe that a dialysis patient in any part of the world deserves the same level of care as one in Europe or the United States. While we may have limited resources in some regions, there are basic standards we must meet, including machine maintenance, proper water systems, infection control, and quality training. If these standards can't be met, I can't be a part of the operation. I hold myself accountable for the wellbeing of the patients, whether I'm present or not. If I've taught something incorrectly, I bear responsibility. These principles guide my work in global healthcare.

Is there anything we haven't discussed that makes you particularly proud?

Reflecting on life, it's fascinating how we're often being prepared for something, even if we don't always know what it is. Looking back at my journey, from the Marine Corps to dialysis, and eventually volunteering for medical missions, I realized this was my passion and purpose.

I recall returning to Beirut, Lebanon, in March 2017, where I served after the bombing in '83. This time, I was there for a training mission with the Syrian American Medical Society. I was asked to perform a dialysis center assessment in southern Lebanon, specifically in Bint Jbeil, Hezbollah territory. Despite the potential backlash from my Marine peers, I decided to proceed, driven by the belief that those who need help the most are often in places where few are willing to go.

(Chris in Beirut in October 1983)

During the assessment, the locals were surprised to learn of my Marine background. Despite being in a hot zone, they respected me, and I would have gladly returned to complete the project.

This experience reinforced my conviction that I'm doing what I'm meant to do, even if it involves risks.

Interestingly, during this trip, I found myself at Beirut International, the same airport I flew into in '83. Looking out at the hills, the scene was almost identical, except for the absence of tracer rounds in the hills. It was a poignant full circle moment - decades later, I was back in the same place, not as a Marine, but as someone providing help. This evolution of my journey has been truly remarkable.

(Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport - March 2017)


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Power full man and

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