Bob Hamilton and his team were surrounded.
The Santa Monica pediatrician and fellow volunteers had just arrived in the African country of Guinea-Bissau as part of a medical mission trip when the Ebola outbreak began spreading, stoking fears around the globe and leading the World Health Organization to declare it an epidemic.
The experience — which included a quarantine in Gambia — reinforced Hamilton’s conviction that health care is desperately needed in underserved countries overseas.
“They just don’t have the infrastructure,” he said, comparing it to the American system. “They really, truly have a huge need. The difference of the need is radical.”
Hamilton’s philanthropy through Lighthouse Medical Missions is possible in part because of the annual Walk to Africa he organizes in Santa Monica. The seventh edition of the event will be held Saturday, May 16.
The walk-a-thon came to fruition in 2009, the result of Hamilton and others seeking out a new way to raise money for their medical charity. They had tried high-end dinners and other exclusive fundraisers in the past, but in the depths of the economic recession they wanted to attract a broader audience.
The event’s name is a metaphor — the heart of Africa, of course, is some 8,000 miles away from Santa Monica and not accessible by land alone.
“You can’t walk to Africa,” said Hamilton, who has been to the continent more than 20 times. “But if a thousand people come together in love and unity and want to walk 8 miles each, those thousand people have walked 8,000 miles.”
Among the dignitaries at this year’s Walk to Africa will be former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, who will designate the start of the event, and former Miss America winner Leanza Cornett, who will sing the national anthem.
Money raised through the walk-a-thon — the goal for this year’s walk is $100,000 — will go towards medication and supplies as well as large containers of food and health care items. Nearly all of the volunteers on Hamilton’s trips cover their own travel expenses.
On their regular trips, Hamilton and his staffers see firsthand the widespread gaps in health care. There are children with defects that could have been prevented with proper care at birth. Malaria is rampant. So are malnutrition and high blood pressure. Chronic skin diseases are not uncommon.
Hamilton and his fellow volunteers don’t always have the time or resources to care for patients with long-term conditions like cancer, but they regularly coordinate with local health workers and pay for patients’ treatment.
Lighthouse Medical Missions volunteers have provided care for more than 60,000 people since Hamilton founded the organization in 1998. Working with Christian churches, they set up free short-term clinics and offer a wide variety of medical services.
“It’s unbelievable,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton recently returned from a medical trip in Tanzania, where he led a group of 20 doctors, nurses and volunteers to provide care for about 1,200 people.
He also ran the LA Marathon for the fourth time earlier this year, raising money for his philanthropic efforts.
To register for Walk to Africa, or for more information, visit www.walktoafrica.com.
Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.