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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Mission doctor adds Zambia to a long legacy

Monday, March 28, 2005

Offers home to new SL clinic

No one will accuse Dr. Ronald Dierwechter of having led a conventional life.

Returning the first week of February after three months in Zambia, the Dierwechters' time in the southern Africa nation was fairly uneventful, compared to other times they have spent in areas where there was civil unrest.

"It was fairly peaceful this time around," said Dr. Dierwechter, who at 69 has spent much of his life working in various medical missionary efforts around the world. Among the procedures he did were intestinal and orthopedic surgery.

The climate was quite mild at 4,000 feet. The Dierwechters stayed in a concrete building with tin roof, and "when the generator worked we had electricity," he said.

Travel is generally by plane or four-wheel-drive vehicles. When monsoon season hits, dry gulches fill with water, making travel next to impossible.

They carried flashlights at night to dodge poisonous snakes like the black mamba, and slept under nets to ward off malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

"Malaria is one of the big killers in the tropical areas of the world," Dr. Dierwechter explained.

While traveling to an undeveloped African nation may seem quite exotic to most of it, it is nothing new for the Dierwechters. They have both traveled widely, serving humanity for roughly half their working careers.

A Storm Lake native, Dr. Dierwechter's Buena Vista County roots go back to his grandfather who came to the area at the turn of the century from Mendota, Ill. After having experienced enough to fill most people's lives many times over, Dr. Dierwechter remains on the home place north of Storm Lake.

When most college students think only of going to Padre Island or Florida, that was not the case for Ronald Dierwechter. When he was an Iowa State undergraduate studying German at the University of Vienna in 1956, he was a firsthand witness to Hungarian refugees pouring across the Austrian border as they fled Soviet domination. They were hungry, wounded, and needing medical help. Volunteers were needed at nursing stations, and Dierwechter signed on.

"It was a mind-altering experience to see those refugees coming across the border in the middle of the night," said Dr. Dierwechter.

That really set the pattern for the rest of his life. "I got hooked," he says simply.

Dierwechter returned to the States to attend medical school at Yale. He did a year's residency in Seattle from 1961-62 then in 1962 he went to Liberia to work in a mission hospital where he met his wife Jewell. After their marriage, they went to Algeria from 1963-1970 where he worked with Algerian rebel groups and they began to raise a family.

After that, life became a bit more pedestrian for a while.

From 1970-74 Dr. Dierwechter did a four-year surgery residency at Iowa Methodist Hospital in Des Moines. For 20 years, he did private practice surgery in Storm Lake, about 1986 building the Dierwechter Clinic on Ontario which is now under the auspices of a foundation he created.

After 20 years of a 'normal' private practice, Dr. Dierwechter thought back to the old days of helping Hungarian refugees and people in Africa. So in 1993, he set aside his practice and decided to return to what he loved most-helping those most in need.

He went to Nepal where he volunteered his services there. He also served those needing medical assistance throughout Africa. When he was in Somalia tending to the wounded and starving in 1992 even before American forces arrived, his children observed that usually it was parents who worried about their children. It that case, it was the reverse.

He returned to the U.S. for three months and he and his wife returned to Mogadishu. "That was a pretty intense experience," he recalls.

Most recently he and his wife volunteered at hospitals in Kenya and Zambia.

Dr. Dierwechter, noting the growing Hispanic population in Storm Lake, and observing that many need medical help, has agreed through a foundation he created to lease to a proposed reduced-fee clinic in Storm Lake the building where his practice was located. A grant is in the works and Renea Seagren of UDMO should know by April as to the outcome of the grant application for the clinic. "It would make for a vibrant program," Dr. Dierwechter said.

The Dierwechter children have largely followed their parents' dedication to serving humanity. Their oldest daughter Tatiana is working with HIV education in Wisconsin and their son Yonn is a professor at the University of Washington in Tacoma. Leza, one of their twin daughters, followed in her father's footsteps and took her medical degree at Yale and did her residency at the same hospital that he father did in Seattle. Natasha, her twin, is a graphic designer in Pasadena.

When asked why he has dedicated roughly half his career to helping others, rather than accumulating wealth, Dr. Dierwechter is quite philosophical.

"We've had a good time," he says of his experiences. "We can't solve all the world's problems but that's not to say we shouldn't at least try."

Dr. Dierwechter offers a quote he heard from a young Jewish couple with whom he worked at his last hospital in Zambia.

"It is not up to us to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it."

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