Nicole (Fortier) O’Brien, BS ’97, easily could have taken the traditional career path after she completed medical school: join a pediatric practice, start a family and enjoy a comfortable life in the suburbs. But the year Nicole spent as a medical missionary in the Ivory Coast before she began medical school eventually led her to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
“Africa gets in your blood,” says Nicole. “Once you’ve been there and have worked and lived and joined a community, you are forever changed. You long to do it again and again.”
Today, Nicole; her husband, Will; and two young children live deep in the jungles of the DRC, leading a nonprofit organization they founded called Restore Elikia. (Elikia means hope in the native language of the DRC.) The DRC, just three degrees off the equator, is the poorest country in the world, with more than 5 million orphans and a life expectancy for its citizens of just 48 years. The infant mortality rate is the world’s second highest, and little more than 50 percent of children complete primary education. The orphans often become victims of sexual violence, victims of child trafficking or child soldiers. In some regions, up to 40 percent of the women are widows who have their land, home and possessions taken away from them when their husbands die.
It’s about as different and far away as you can get from the tiny village of Ridgeville Corners, Ohio, (population: 435) where Nicole grew up. She chose Ohio Northern University because “the people were absolutely amazing when I visited.”
“They were really truly kind and genuine,” she says. “I also liked the size of the school, and I knew my education would be the professors’ highest priority.”
Initially, Nicole’s goal was to become an occupational therapist, but she found her interest in medicine becoming stronger and stronger. “I started to think about pursuing medical school,” Nicole says. “However, I was the first in my family to attend college, so pursuing higher education beyond undergraduate school seemed overwhelming and out of reach.”
“I couldn’t shake the urge, though, so I started discussing my thoughts with some of my professors in the biology department at ONU. Dr. Barry Warwick and Dr. Rodney Anderson were two professors who truly pushed me to believe in myself and to apply to medical school. To this day, I don’t think without their influence I would have done it!”
While she was attending medical school at the Medical College of Ohio, completing her residency in internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of California San Diego, and finishing her fellowship in pediatric critical care, Nicole made several trips back to Africa and around the globe to do village health care worker training.
In 2009, she began working at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, but her global ambitions never waned. Nicole became a critical care physician and director of the Global Health Certificate Program at Nationwide Children’s.
Africa entered the picture again when Nicole and Will decided to pursue an international adoption. This venture, however, would be different from the others for reasons that included both heartbreak and hope.
“We had always planned on adopting children from Africa as a way to expand our family,” said Nicole. When they received word that a 4-year-old girl, Akatshi, and her 2-year-old brother, Lowolo, were living in a remote region of the DRC and needed to be paired with a family, they did their research and pursued the adoption.
“During one month in their orphanage, a dysentery outbreak occurred and 37 of the 52 children died,” explains Nicole. “As a global health pediatrician, I visited the orphanage and made as many public health interventions that I could to keep the remaining children (ours included) alive and healthy.”
“I vaccinated the kids, made sure mosquito nets were hung, set up water-purification systems, and made some dietary interventions to start combating their severe malnutrition. It didn’t take more than the first afternoon with my children before I was madly in love with them.”
“Thinking that we would always want to stay involved in the region that our kids were from, we started to brainstorm and put plans together for Restore Elikia in June 2014.”
“The orphanages in the DRC are poorly funded, and, as such, the kids are not healthy in any way — physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually,” she explains. “The goal of Restore Elikia is to provide sustainable orphan care so the kids can thrive.”
Shortly after their adoption was completed, however, the DRC put a ban on issuing exit letters for Congolese children who had been adopted.
“That meant our kids were fully adopted according to Congolese law, but we couldn’t leave the country with them,” says Nicole. Knowing it potentially could be a very long wait, Will moved to the jungle in the Congo to raise Akatshi and Lowolo while Nicole stayed in the U.S., working and raising their two biological children.
“Will moved to Lodja in September 2014 and spent all day at the orphanage raising not only our children, but also the other 10 kids who were still there,” says Nicole.
Nicole and Will’s joy at their expanded family soon turned to heartbreak. Will began to notice some irregularities at the orphanage. Through further investigations, Nicole and Will discovered that all the children in the orphanage had been trafficked there by the orphanage director. He was collecting funds from the adoption agency as well as the government, which he kept for himself.
“Our children actually had a mother and a father who wanted them and who did not want them to be adopted,” says Nicole. “ We returned our children to their parents in January 2015 and returned home.”
“We were heartbroken and blessed all at the same time,” she says. “Heartbroken because our personal grief was enormous. But blessed in that we truly believe we were used to stand in a gap and provide for those children when no one else was going to — that we could shut down a child-trafficking ring and get 12 kids returned to their families who loved them.”
“And it may seem odd, but almost immediately, we knew that Restore Elikia needed to go on. We knew we had been called to this remote region in the DRC for a greater purpose than what we had initially understood. And so we pushed on — full of determination to build beauty out of the ashes.”
Today, thanks to a Fulbright Grant Nicole received in March 2015, she and her family are living in Lodja in the DRC where they will live intermittently over the next three years.
“The purpose of the Fulbright Grant is to look at ‘the epidemiology of acute neurologic illness and injury in children in urban and rural Democratic Republic of the Congo,’” explains Nicole. The federally funded Fulbright Grant helps to build relationships and communities between academics across the globe.
In addition to her research in the Congo, Nicole and Will are working on Restore Elikia, whose mission is straightforward, but challenging: “Provide community development and sustainable orphan support through the provision of clean water, food, education and medical care.”
Will home-schools the children while Nicole works on her research, and they both spend time working on Restore Elikia. The first two phases of their long-term plan have been completed: They purchased 25 acres of land and built a well, which, fittingly, was completed on Thanksgiving Day. Community support has been strong. Over the holidays, a Families Feeding Families holiday campaign provided 127 vulnerable families with 45 pairs of chickens, 43 pairs of goats, and 39 pairs of pigs.
Future plans include building homes for orphans and widows; purchasing equipment, livestock, chickens, fish and fruit trees; building a medical clinic to provide ongoing education; and training house officers who care for orphans.
Nicole says, “The most important skills we are teaching are self-reliance and confidence. Happiness. Joy. Peace.”
Beauty from the ashes, indeed.
This article was originally published in the spring 2016 Alumni Journal.