November 10, 2013 in Region

Oregon city pays it forward by giving ambulance, supplies to African clinic

Kelsey Thalhofer Register-Guard (Eugene)
Associated Press photo

After traveling this summer to a friend’s medical clinic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where medical technology and supplies are sparse, Ellen and John Heinitz were overjoyed to discover Oakridge interim Fire Chief Tim Whittaker’s ambulance posting on Craigslist. Though they had planned to buy the ambulance for the Congolese clinic, the City Council voted Thursday to donate the vehicle to the cause.
(Full-size photo)

How to help

Dr. Ellen Heinitz is still accepting donations and medical supplies. For donation information:

• Contact Heinitz at ellendayheinitz@, Tim Whittaker at or Oakridge Fire and EMS at (541) 782-2416.

OAKRIDGE, Ore. – Call it a miracle or a simple act of kindness: The city of Oakridge has decided it’s time to pay it forward.

Two years ago, the city was in financial crisis when it became the subject of an episode of the ABC television show “Secret Millionaire,” which aired this past September.

On the show, a Texas doctor and his wife gave a number of donations to the city, including a new ambulance for the Oakridge Fire Department.

Now the town has reached out to another cash-strapped community: Lubumbashi, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa. That is where Dr. Yumba “Ysu” Sanga Umbalo runs a medical clinic in desperate need of supplies – namely, an ambulance.

“The whole thing just feels like a miracle to me,” said Grants Pass naturopathic doctor Ellen Heinitz, who spent part of her summer at the Congolese clinic.

Heinitz was inspired to look for an ambulance on Craigslist after receiving an email from Umbalo saying he’d had a dream the night before about buying an ambulance at a used-car lot.

She knew that Umbalo, who received his medical training in the United States before returning to his home country to treat the ill regardless of their ability to pay, had long envisioned establishing a medical clinic in an old ambulance.

The country has no 911 infrastructure, and the Jeep he had formerly used to attend to patients had broken down.

On Craigslist that day, Heinitz spotted an old surplused ambulance for sale in Oakridge and contacted interim Fire Chief Tim Whittaker with a $1,500 bid.

It was the lowest bid Whittaker received. But it was the most persuasive.

“Our department has received so many gifts throughout the years,” Whittaker said. “It was just really exciting to finally be able to help somebody else out.”

But he didn’t stop there.

Whittaker put part-time firefighter-paramedic Patrick Frare to work contacting other fire departments and clinics, and they filled the ambulance to its ceiling with a few thousand dollars’ worth of medical supplies, including a set of gurneys and other supplies such as syringes.

Then Whittaker and the city formed a secret plan to reject Heinitz’s $1,500 personal check in favor of donating the ambulance completely.

The plan came together at Thursday’s City Council meeting, when Heinitz and her husband, John, gave a presentation about Lubumbashi and the clinic, and the council followed with a unanimous vote to donate the ambulance.

Mayor Jerry Shorey even suggested making Lubumbashi a sister city of Oakridge.

“I’d like to see it become a community project,” he said. “We’ve been very fortunate, and somebody helped us out when we needed it, so it’s time to repay the favor.”

John Heinitz teared up at the surprise and the sentiment. “I could just tell that they had received something fantastic, and they wanted to make something fantastic happen for Lubumbashi,” he said.

Ellen Heinitz was equally touched. In a country rife with random acts of violence, she said, “I don’t think they’re used to random acts of kindness.”

When they contacted Umbalo by email Thursday night, he responded in surprise as well.

“He just can’t believe everything that’s happening,” John Heinitz said. “It’s just beyond him at this point.”

The Heinitzes delivered the ambulance to Grants Pass on Friday, where they plan to stock it with Christmas gifts for a Congolese children’s home, which usually doesn’t have gifts for the holiday.

They will ship the ambulance in a few weeks and are still collecting medical supplies to send in a separate shipment by the end of the year.

The extra $1,500 in their pocket will go to big-ticket medical supplies, such as fetal monitors or blood pressure monitors for the clinic.

Mayor Shorey said that while the city of Oakridge is still in the midst of its financial struggles, the situation is significantly brighter than it was a two years ago, and reaching out to other communities is a key step.

“It should be a good holiday season – in Africa, and here too,” he said. “There’s always a little joy in giving.”

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