In 1987, Lee Weingrad '66 (philosophy) first traveled to Tibet in search of the 500-year-old Surmang Dutsi-til, the fabled hill of elixir of immortality. What he found instead were impoverished nomads whose hardscrabble existence was a day-to-day struggle for survival.
At 43, Weingrad was changed by the experience. In 1988, the onetime gem wholesaler founded the Surmang Foundation in the remote Surmang region of Qinghai, China. The organization's centerpiece is a health clinic that, over the last 10 years, has provided free medical care to more than 150,000 patients — with a focus on mothers and children. The region in northwest China has among the highest infant and maternal mortality in the world, but Weingrad says the foundation already is reversing the trend.
"We've reduced maternal mortality to zero. The only complaint I've heard is that we didn't get there 10 years earlier," he says from his office in Beijing, China, where he lives with his wife and two children. The foundation has trained 40 community health workers who meet with pregnant women and provide health awareness, attend births and refer patients to the clinic when more care is needed.
Despite their privations — the inhabitants of Surmang earn about 15 cents a day — the population remains happy and generous, says Weingrad, the foundation's CEO. "For me, the awards are mainly spiritual," he says. "Even though there are serious cultural, financial and managerial challenges, I can say that I love my life and I'm sitting exactly where I belong."
The foundation's efforts haven't gone unnoticed by the Chinese government. After the 6.9-magnitude Yushu earthquake of 2010, officials plan to use Weingrad's health care model as a prototype for sustainable rural care practices. In a region that often lacks electricity and phone service — "It's like going back 500 years in time" — the foundation has begun to use iPads to create patient records and consult with Beijing hospitals to provide remote diagnoses, when necessary.
The Surmang Foundation is one of the few international nonprofits in Tibet, which can be like "walking on eggshells," Weingrad says. Although they share an ancient history, it took military action to incorporate Tibet into the newly formed People's Republic of China. But Weingrad keeps his focus on how to help.
"Looking back on my arrival there 26 years ago, I thought I had reached my destination in life," he says. "I realize now that I had only reached the bus depot. I think the best is yet to come."