Oregon town makes a gift of old ambulance

Patients of an African clinic will be the next to gain from a pattern of generosity

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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, when the city was in financial crisis, it became the subject of an episode of the ABC television show "Secret Millionaire."

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. That is where Dr. Yumba Sanga "Ysu" Umbalo runs a medical clinic in desperate need of supplies — including 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 in Central Africa.

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 treats 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 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 convincing.

"Our department has received so many gifts throughout the years," he 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 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."

The Heinitzes were touched. In a country rife with random acts of violence, Ellen Heinitz said, "I don't think they're used to random acts of kindness."

Umbalo was surprised as well. "He just can't believe everything that's happening," John Heinitz said.

The Heinitzes took 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 holiday gifts.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.

Shorey said that while Oakridge is still in the midst of financial struggles, the situation is significantly brighter than it was 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."