Dikembe Mutombo was an eight-time NBA All-Star renowned for his defense and shot-blocking skills — and for his wit and sense of humor. Some people who don’t even follow sports recognize the basketball star from his lighthearted appearances on TV.
But few know that the 7-foot-2 Mutombo, who at one time played for the Atlanta Hawks, was recently elected to the CDC Foundation’s board of directors. It happened with almost no fanfare and drew little media attention.
“Dikembe is a global humanitarian, and his passion for helping others is prevalent in all aspects of his life,” says Charles Stokes, president and CEO of the CDC Foundation, located in Atlanta.
Mutombo, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, says he has more firsthand knowledge than many Americans about certain situations on the ground around the world, especially in African countries that have been hard hit by disease, civil unrest and natural disasters.
“I have visited all of these places and I have a [deeper] understanding of the world,’’ he told GHN. “For this reason, I believe my experiences will be helpful to the CDC Foundation and its initiatives.”
Mutombo, who has a home in Atlanta, towers over his fellow CDC board members in height, while they look up to him for his lifelong humanitarian work.
Never forgetting his roots
Before 2007, his hometown of Kinshasa, which is also the Congo’s capital, lacked a hospital with the amenities that patients take for granted in the United States.
But in December of that year, the $29 million Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital (BMMH) opened in memory of Mutombo’s mother, with funds raised from his foundation.
He told CNN that his mother taught him the importance of helping others.
“For everything she did for her children and for her family, the value of love and giving back and sharing,’’ Mutombo told CNN. “Not just with you, not just with your family, but with the people you encounter in life, with your community, and that was the kind of love that my mom gave.”
According to the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation, this first modern hospital for the Congo has already treated more than 100,000 patients.
Dr. Lillian Schapiro, an Atlanta ob/gyn, had the chance to visit the hospital with Mutombo in 2011.
Accompanied by a surgical assistant and another Atlanta ob/gyn, they had the “phenomenal opportunity to see firsthand the modern medicine that this man was able to bring to the people of his hometown,” Schapiro says.
Before BMMH was built, “you would find families cooking food on an open fire in hospital courtyards, and clean linens were a luxury,” says Schapiro.
Dr. Schapiro and her team performed 23 operations in 10 days at BMMH. But there’s still so much more to do, she says.
Schapiro says she plans to return to the Congo.
“In addition to spending time in Kinshasa, I have also had the privilege of meeting Congolese physicians when they visit Atlanta,” says Schapiro. “Dikembe is an amazing asset and ambassador for Atlanta, helping to bring understanding and solid relationships between the two cities.”
A remarkable history
Mutombo arrived in the United States in the mid-1980s on an academic scholarship to attend Georgetown University in Washington. In his second year at Georgetown, Coach John Thompson invited Mutombo to try out for the university’s famed basketball team. He made the team – and ended up as a key player for the Hoyas.
Mutombo graduated from Georgetown with dual degrees in linguistics and diplomacy. He is fluent in nine languages, including five African tongues. By 2009, the year he retired from basketball, NBA Commissioner David Stern appointed Mutombo to the newly created position of NBA’s Global Ambassador.
The mission of the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation, located in Atlanta, is to improve the health, education and quality of life for the people in the Congo.
During the CDC’s polio eradication efforts there, the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation worked closely with the federal agency. At the time, the Congo, a vast nation that has been plagued with wars in some areas, had the most intense polio virus transmission in the world.
Despite the civil unrest and frequent losses of electric power, the campaign to vaccinate children against polio reached 8.2 million of the Congo’s 10 million children in less than five years. More than 16,000 health stations were set up to vaccinate children during the campaign and 75,000 vaccinators delivered polio vaccine to children over a three-day period.
In Atlanta, Mutombo is well known for the time and other support he gives to charities. He’s involved in efforts to supply toys for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Hughes Spalding, and also helps Hosea Feed the Hungry and the Atlanta Community Food Bank. In addition, he makes personal appearances at local schools to encourage academic excellence and motivate students to think globally.
The CDC Foundation and the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation believe in the same principles: improving the quality of life for people around the world.
Judi Kanne, a registered nurse and freelance writer, combines her nursing and journalism backgrounds to write about public health. She lives in Atlanta.