Focus:With the Oasis, a new era was born

Pat and Marian Kennedy were asked to set up a hospital for Abu Dhabi in 1960, still referred to as the Kennedy Hospital.

Sheikh Zayed, with his son Sheikh Sultan, speaks with staff at the new facility in 1964.
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Coated in a dusting of sand and weary from their long journey from the US, doctors Pat and Marian Kennedy had not even unpacked when there was a frantic pounding on the door of their mud-block compound. It was the first patient to arrive at the newly established Oasis Hospital in Al Ain - and, as she was deep in the throes of labour, there was no time to ease themselves into their new posts. Dr Kennedy quickly rolled up her sleeves and with calm efficiency delivered a boy to the grateful mother before driving her back to her tribe a few hours later in a Land Rover.

The boy was called Mubarak, meaning the blessed. Both his name and that fateful day in November 1960 were signs of the enormous undertaking and huge strides that were to be achieved with the opening of Abu Dhabi's first hospital. "It was the icebreaker, and the word spread like wildfire to all the villages near and far," recalls Gertrude Dyck, 74, a Canadian-born nurse who worked alongside the couple and stayed at the Oasis for more than 40 years.

That simple birth heralded the start of a new era; the legacy the Kennedys had inherited when they agreed to set up the Oasis under the patronage of Sheikh Zayed and his brother Sheikh Shakhbut was one where half of all babies born had no chance of survival and one in three mothers died during childbirth. Years of living in the desert with little or nothing in the way of facilities and crude birthing methods that could leave mothers infertile or battling infections, reflected in infant and maternal mortality rates.

Little wonder, then, that the death of Marian Kennedy last week at the age of 84 touched many who remembered her and her late husband's extraordinary dedication to revolutionising health care in the region and marked five decades of astonishing achievements in transforming medical services. Gertrude, who was nicknamed Doctora Latifa, or mercy, says: "The big breakthrough was with the obstetric cases. There was a very special need and they recognised it first by asking why they had such small families.

"In Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, they found the Arabs always had big families but here, they found only two or three children per family or less. "The problem was what was considered to be their main treatment after a delivery, which was insertion of rock salt to prevent infection and bleeding. However, it did more harm than good. "They had very difficult subsequent deliveries because of what Dr Marian called scar tissue, which would have to tear open to allow the baby to exit.

"For that reason, many mothers died and many babies as well. That of course has been the winner in the treatment Dr Marian was able to give the women to save their lives and their babies. "As Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed said, as the first of the royalty to be born at the Oasis, 'If you had not come, we would not be here.'" Today, Al Ain may seem an unusual choice for the establishment of the emirate's first hospital, instead of the capital, 160km away.

At the time, the only existing medical centres were Maktoum Hospital in Dubai, which would occasionally dispatch doctors to Abu Dhabi, the Sarah Hosman maternity unit in Sharjah and a small maternity ward in Ras al Khaimah. But its strategic position, good water supply and association with Sheikh Zayed, who learnt his craft as ruler in his first post there, earmarked it as the seat of health care in the UAE.

Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Shakhbut recognised the need for expert medical care in the garden city and, having been impressed with American missionary hospitals in Muscat and Bahrain, started investigating the possibility of setting up a similar centre in Abu Dhabi. In 1960 the Kennedys, who had already worked in hospitals across the Middle East, arrived with their four children, Kathleen, Scott, Nancy and Douglas, as part of the Evangelical Alliance Mission and set up base in a mud-block guesthouse donated by Sheikh Zayed.

Luxuries were few and far between, and those who worked at the Oasis in the early days remember the hardships endured to make ends meet. There were no intravenous fluids, so the Kennedys concocted their own mixture from water, sugar and salt. Water for the hospital was pumped manually from nearby wells and the doctors not only cared for patients but carried out maintenance as well. As news spread about the availability of medical care, patients began arriving in droves by camel, donkey and on foot, travelling great distances for a consultation with "Kenned" and "Mariam".

They would camp in the grounds for days and offer to pay with animals and eggs when they lacked financial means. The two founding Sheikhs intervened to supply burwas, or slips of paper bearing their signet-ring stamp, which could be exchanged for treatment, with the Sheikh picking up the bill. Gertrude, writing in her memoir The Oasis, said: "Patients began to come from Al Ain and Oman, seemingly from nowhere, to see the doctors and try out their medicine.

"Many came by camel after many days of travelling. The Kennedys were ingenious in using what they had to meet the need and they quickly understood their cultural traditions ? "The hospital became the centre of social life as well as the people's sole source of treatment. "There were soon more than 200 patients a morning coming to the clinics. By the end of the second month, 1,000 were registered in the outpatient clinic.

"By the end of the fifth year, that number had grown to 20,000." The Kennedys were as familiar with delivering royal babies as they were those of the Bedouin and oversaw the birth of several of Sheikh Zayed's children, which gave them a close relationship with his family. Those were the days before oil was discovered and, reflecting the rapid development throughout the UAE, the Oasis underwent dramatic changes in a short space of time.

When heavy rains badly damaged the mud compound in March 1963, the hospital moved to a new prefabricated unit with eight rooms made from the branches of palm trees. Unfortunately, it burnt down six months later when one of the patients cooked a meal in her room. A concrete building replaced it in 1964, while a labour and delivery suite, X-ray unit and ensuite patient rooms with air conditioning, plus a specialist obstetrics, surgical and paediatric wing, followed from the 1970s onward.

Today the site boasts more than 130 staff, including more than 30 doctors, and the infant mortality rate stands at less than one per cent. Even though the founders left in 1975 to return to their native California, where Pat Kennedy died eight years ago, the hospital is still fondly known as the Kennedy Hospital. Scott Kennedy, 51, who followed his parents into medicine, says: "My parents both reached out to the local society and loved the Bedouins.

"We grew up learning the local language, jokes and culture. From the age of 13 I helped my father with gall bladder and hernia operations. "I am still constantly reminded of their early day contributions to saving lives when I practise in the Middle East and other doctors tell me of their memories of them." Nancy Brock, who worked as a nurse with the couple, says: "Many of the present generation know nothing of the horrors of childbirth in those early days.

"Marian made a huge contribution to the lessening of infant and maternal mortality. Her love for the Arab people was obvious and she treated royal women and the Bedouin just the same. Probably no foreigner in the history of the nation has been as loved as Doctora Mariam." The Kennedys were followed by US-born Larry and Marilyn Liddle, who ran the Oasis for 32 years until they retired in June. "It was difficult not having much equipment and we had to improvise a lot, but the Kennedys' achievements had been phenomenal in laying the foundations for the hospital," says Larry, 65.

"It was unusual to have a hospital founded by a Christian movement in a Muslim country, but the UAE is very good at allowing freedom of religious expression and the rulers had been influenced by the Christian hospitals they had seen in Bahrain and Muscat. "As the country continues to expand, health care is going to be one of the major areas for development. It is already very similar in standard and quality to the West. The major challenge now is convincing people that quality medical care has come to their country and they no longer have to leave to get it."

Perhaps the greatest legacy left by the Kennedys is demonstrated by the new parents passing through the doors of the Oasis today. One of its most recent arrivals was Hamdan al Shamsi, the 19th child born to proud father Qannoun, 68, at the hospital. When Mr Shamsi first became a father, his children stood only a 50 per cent chance of surviving. Thanks to the care provided by the Oasis, all 19 are living testimony to the groundbreaking revolution in health care which has saved so many lives in the desert.