'Given the Gift to Work for Children'

Sunday, December 1, 2013

By Jane Erikson

It’s Monday morning. Pediatrician John Tannous, MD, has just made the grueling 35-minute bike ride from his house to his clinic in Kunming, China.

It doesn’t take long for his first patients to arrive.

Two baby girls, both with Down’s syndrome, both with heart disease, both very ill. Both had been abandoned and are now in foster care.

Tannous and one of the three other doctors who work in the clinic examined the babies and developed a treatment plan. It included crushing tablets of Viagra into suspension, then feeding it to the babies. The drug better known for a far different purpose would help decrease the blood pressure in the babies’ lungs.

Two days later, what they most feared came to pass. One of the little girls had died.

“We are stretched professionally and emotionally,” says Tannous, a 1993 graduate of the UA College of Medicine.

“But I’ve been given the gift to work for children and to advocate for children’s health – especially for the marginalized. So, I may not be financially rich, but as far as experience in life, I couldn’t ask for more.”

Tannous and his wife, Karen, helped establish Kunming International Clinic in Yunnan Province, one of the poorest provinces in all of China, roughly 300 miles north of Hanoi, in 2001.

“We had been talking about it for years. When I finished my pediatrics residency at St. Joseph’s in Phoenix, I went into private practice, in Glendale, with four other pediatricians. It was great. I loved being in private practice. But when I started, I told the group I would be leaving in three to seven years,” he says. “It turned out to be five.”

Why China? For one thing, Karen Tannous, a California native who grew up in Taiwan, spoke Mandarin, so that gave the couple a head start. “She got off the plane speaking Mandarin, but now my medical Chinese is better than hers,” John Tannous says, feigning smugness.

A group of friends, including Timothy West, MD, a 1994 College of Medicine alum who now lives and practices in Boise, ID, suggested they form a non-profit to raise funds for their work in China. They started H.O.M.E.S. (Holistic Orphan Medical and Educational Services) International.

When the Tannouses told their friends of their decision to move to China, the reaction was mixed. Decidedly.

“One of my friends told me flat out, ‘I think you’re crazy,’” Tannous recalls. "At least he was honest about it."

“What’s really interesting is the number of people who said, ‘What’s that going to do to your kids?’”

The Tannouses have four children. Daniel is now almost 20 and attends Wheaton College outside of Chicago. Jonathan is 14, Elizabeth is 10, and Sarah, who they adopted as an infant in China, is now 8.

“And in fact it’s been wonderful for our kids. They’ve been all over Asia. They have friends in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. They go to an international school here, and they have a much broader world view. They know the difference between Thailand and Taiwan.”

Karen Tannous manages the Kunming Clinic’s day to day operations, while John sees his patients – at the clinic usually, sometimes going to a child’s home or orphanage.

The Tannouses are motivated by their Christian faith, and a strong drive to help those in need. John’s awareness of the unmet needs of so many people around the world is one of the most important things he gained from his time with the UA College of Medicine, he says.

But it’s hard work. He is the only American pediatrician in Kunming. He’s seen cases of polio, tetanus, mumps, measles, “everything you get immunized for in the U.S.,” he says.

And he gets paid “with fruit and poultry, instead of automatic deposit.”

And there are those 35-minute bike rides to work.

“But then there are those moments when I get to see a parent’s face and they realize, ‘This is someone who cares about my child’s health, and he will advocate for my child.’ That’s just great. It’s tremendous.’”

And he recalls what a mentor recently said to him: “John, I don’t know anyone who’s gotten more out of their medical degree than you have.”