Katie Stakolich was finally going to meet the man who held the phone half a world away so she could talk to her dying mother.
Stakolich, from California, forged a long-distance friendship with Ghanaian doctor Alfred Jacob Aidoo last year while he treated her mom after she was severely injured in a car accident.
“He changed my life,” Stakolich said Wednesday as she waited for Aidoo to arrive at the University of Kansas Medical Center’s new health education building.
Aidoo was coming to Kansas as part of an international fellowship with the American Association of Respiratory Care, and Stakolich had flown in to surprise him.
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As he walked down a hallway with a couple of KU staff members, Stakolich stepped out from behind a screen and Aidoo’s eyes widened.
“Surprise,” she said, already choking up.
They shared a long, tearful hug.
“I can’t even walk,” Aidoo said when they finally pulled apart. “I’m speechless.”
Aidoo’s life converged with Stakolich’s in November 2016 when he walked into a room at Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi and found an American woman, unconscious and on a ventilator.
His first thought was “Where is her family?”
Aidoo called the U.S. Embassy and volunteered to be the point of contact for anyone inquiring about the patient.
That connected him with Stakolich, who was already dealing with a lot. Her father had died unexpectedly a year earlier and her aunt had died of a heart attack just days before her mother’s car accident. With a family in turmoil and no valid passport, she couldn’t fly to Ghana.
Aidoo became her eyes and ears at the hospital; calling, texting and video-conferencing — when the internet allowed — so that she could be connected to her mom.
“Alfred was always there,” Stakolich said. “He never left.”
Aidoo said he felt an immediate bond with Stakolich and wanted to treat her mother as if she were his own.
“I could not imagine having your mom in a place that you could not easily have access to and didn’t know anyone there,” Aidoo said. “I just felt like she needed someone she could trust and I was ready to be that person.”
When it became clear that Stakolich’s mother was dying, Aidoo knew what he had to do. Stakolich wrote about that night in a Facebook post that she said has since reached more than 300,000 people.
“Alfred called me and said I needed to talk to mom,” Stakolich wrote. “He put me on his speakerphone held it up to her ear. I was able tell her how much we all loved her and how proud I was to call her my mom. She was finally living life on her terms. I told her it was OK for her to go to heaven; we will be OK.”
“This is how she passed away: listening to my voice and holding Alfred’s hand. I wish every day that I could have been the one holding her hand.”
Their story didn’t end there. For six months, Stakolich said she and Aidoo worked together to overcome the bureaucracies of two countries to get her mother’s hospital bill paid and get her remains sent back to the United States.
He recalled a day when he stood in a long line at a bank with his sick daughter, only to be told that Stakolich’s funds transfer wouldn’t go through.
“Not all our institutions fight for us,” Aidoo said. “There were times we felt institutions should be more responsive, but they weren’t. That brought us closer because we knew all we had was just ourselves.”
Aidoo said he hoped sharing their story could change that, and could remind other physicians of the rewards of looking beyond their clinical duties.
“The good physician is not just the one that treats the sickness,” Aidoo said, “but the one who knows that the patient is part of a family.”
Stakolich said Aidoo embodied that philosophy in treating her mom, and he restored her faith in humanity at a time when she desperately needed it.
“I know he wanted to save my mom,” Stakolich said. “But in the process he saved me and my family.”