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In a letter to his Harvard Kennedy School classmates, Mukhtar Abdi Ogle MC/MPA 2013 wrote that his time at the Kennedy School enabled him to “think straight” and gave him the will and a way to “walk straight.”
Not being able to walk straight seemed a foregone conclusion for Ogle, who was stricken with polio as a child living in northeastern Kenya. The disease had left Ogle with two atrophied legs. As he tells the story, “a village quack” misdiagnosed his condition preventing him from receiving proper medical treatment. The right care, he says, could have made a difference in his still developing nervous system and limbs. Instead, left untreated, his crippled legs forced him to walk with a lurching gait. He credits his mother for giving him the tools he needed to move on with his life.
Ogle is currently the national coordinator for a research agency in Kenya. He received financial aid to attend the Kennedy School where he met Zaher Nahlé MC/MPA 2013, an award-winning scientist from Lebanon with a PhD in physiology and biophysics and a permanent resident of the United States through the USCIS Outstanding Professor/Researcher program.
The two quickly became friends and it wasn’t long before Nahlé turned to Ogle and said, “We need to do something about your leg.”
“I was unconformable with the way he moved,” Nahlé explains. “Not so much the way he walked, but the inevitable disuse and misuse of the system.” The Kennedy School and its spirit of service and mission to solve challenging problems, he says, inspired him to search for a solution.
“The Kennedy School is a place that makes you believe anything is possible,” he says. “It empowers you.”
While Nahlé believed something could be done, it took some convincing to get Ogle to feel the same way. “I resigned myself to the discomfort of bent knees and the rhythmic displeasure of my movement,” Ogle says. “I felt those challenges were meant to be.”
Nahlé recalls some tense times before Mukhtar agreed to seek help. “One day it all came to a head when he told me God created him like this, and that was that. I then told him he could use his disability to inspire others and that he shouldn’t be so selfish. We were almost yelling at each other. The next day he came to me and said, ‘where do we start?’”
They started at Harvard University Health Services (HUHS). The once reluctant Ogle was now excited by the possibility that he could help others by paving the way for them. Joking with the doctor at his first appointment, Ogle said, “I’m donating my foot to research, as long as you don’t cut it off.”
After his first meeting with HUHS physician Marla Onishi, Ogle was referred to specialists Thomas Lyons at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Robert Easterbrooks , the C.P.O of Atlantic Prosthetics and Orthotics.
Numerous appointments, consultations, and fittings later, a custom-made prosthesis was designed to allow Ogle, for the first time in his life, to stand tall and walk correctly. The lightweight, ergonomic prosthetic that incorporates new technologies wraps around his waist and supports his left leg down to his foot. Ogle’s left knee used to bend inward as he walked, putting pressure and stress on his knees, hip, and spine, and causing his left leg to swing forward. The new device supports Ogle so that his straightened knees bend more naturally, allowing him to take smoother steps forward.
Ogle’s wife and children, who had remained in Kenya during his year at the Kennedy School, were ecstatic to see the change in him when he returned home after graduation. “My children are recovering from the happy shock of my progress and straight walk,” Ogle says. “My mother insists on touching the new appliance.”
Following their successful effort to address Ogle’s impairment, it wasn’t long before the two men thought about sharing their experience with others like Ogle. Before graduating in May, they formed IBRAK Partners. Loosely translated, ibrak means “blessing” in Arabic.
Ogle and Nahlé have a global vision for IBRAK beginning with two pilot programs – one each in Kenya and Nigeria. They hope to fly specialists to the program sites in Africa for one-day workshops where the specialists will evaluate patients and make prosthetic recommendations. Nahlé stresses there is a preventative aspect to the program: identifying post-polio patients early and fitting them with these new devices that will help correct their walks and prevent further deterioration down the road, saving the health care system hundreds of thousands of dollars in knee and hip replacement surgeries and other costly medical procedures.
Phase II plans consists of training and hiring patients to manufacture prosthetics on site, a win-win for the student patients and the organization. IBRAK has developed strategic partnerships with the U.S.-based institutions involved in Ogle’s prognosis for that purpose. So not only would IBRAK give them the ability to walk properly, it would also teach them a trade and provide them with jobs.
Polio victims are just the beginning. IBRAK Partners hopes to eventually expand their programming to include psychical disabilities resulting from other pediatric ailments or casualties associated with violence in conflict zones. Ogle and Nahlé plan to partner with HKS alumni all over the world to meet the prosthetic and rehabilitation needs in their communities.
“We have the whole world mapped out literally through our HKS classmates,” says Nahlé. “Ultimately, we will create a patient registry and build local specialty hospitals with tailored and world-class programs for continuous care in what we consider our sustainability phase, or Phase III, of this project.”
The new enterprise has already caught the attention of many of Ogle and Nahlé's former classmates. “I haven’t even mentioned funding and some of my classmates have already handed me checks to sponsor a child. It’s very moving,” Nahlé says. IBRAK is far from meeting its funding needs, he cautions, but the early support from their colleagues has helped motivate them.
“Just before graduation day in May, we were having some trepidation and self-doubt about this endeavor – particularly with the finances – and we started considering different plans,” Nahlé says. “Amidst all this, a friend emailed me the transcript of Harvard President Drew Faust’s 2013 Baccalaureate service speech ‘Running Toward.’ I recall reading one paragraph in particular that spoke directly to me, it goes, ‘…I wish for you, Class of 2013, lives of running toward. Lives in which you are motivated, even seized, by something larger than yourselves, lives of engagement and commitment and, yes, risk. Don’t settle for Plan B, the safe plan, until you have tried Plan A, even if it might require a miracle. I call it the Parking Space Theory of Life. Don’t park 10 blocks away from your destination because you think you won’t find a closer space. Go to where you want to be. You can always circle back to where you have to be.’"
“After reading this we moved forward with Plan A, head first!” Nahlé says.
“I can assure you this initiative will be a game-changer,” Ogle adds. Before that happens, however, many challenges lie ahead for the IBRAK partners. Ogle recently met with the National Disability Council in Kenya, but there is much work to be done. “The council is currently battling governance and corruption issues,” says Ogle,” and little effort is being made to think outside the box and inspire change to transform the lives of polio victims. Its my earnest conviction that IBRAK will make national, regional, and continental impact and change.”
Ogle is now back in Kenya visiting schools where significant numbers of polio victims are enrolled, sharing his experience and gaining support for IBRAK Partners. “I am thrilled by the glow in the students’ eyes as they learn how science, innovation, and technology could change their lives,” he says. According to Ogle, there are new outbreaks of polio in Kenya and Nigeria despite the countries’ so-called preventative efforts.
Back in the United States Nahlé is focused on the administrative and legal aspects of forming a social entrepreneurship start-up. He is also busy recruiting board members and cultivating strategic partnerships. And like so many others with small start-ups, Nahlé answers phones, responds to email, and makes photocopies. “No job is too small or too big,” Nahlé says.
Even though much work and effort is still needed to incorporate their vision through national programs and entities, including the National Disability Council, Ogle remains optimistic. He has established an audience with the new National Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich MC/MPA 2010, who was encouraged by the effort and has made a commitment to support the program “We are now on the right course,” Ogle says, “to provide better service for people with such disabilities and to reach out to the private sector in Kenya so as to draw inspiration from IBRAK Partners!”