Journey of a lifetime

Chicago-trained physician spends career as a leading cardiologist in Africa; treats top dignitaries

In Kenya, David Silverstein, MD’67, is known as the father of cardiology. Shortly after his arrival there in the 70s, he established the first cardiac catheterization laboratory or cath lab, an examination room where doctors use diagnostic imaging equipment to diagnose and treat heart conditions with catheters instead of surgery.

But that was just the beginning for the Chicago native, whose initial plans of a two-year stint in the East African country turned into an adventure of a lifetime that has spanned over four decades.

“When I was at the University of Chicago, I didn’t really know there was a world out there,” Silverstein said. “I was so much into academics and school and trying to excel.”

After graduating from the University of Chicago Medical School at the young age of 22, Silverstein, now 72, completed his residency in Seattle and later served in the military at an Air Force base in Taiwan. That experience birthed in him a desire to see more of the world. After his military service, he returned to Seattle and completed a cardiology fellowship. When a cardiologist friend from Kenya suggested he apply for a position in Nairobi, he didn’t hesitate.

“I didn’t hear from the University of Nairobi for a long time, and suddenly they called and said, ‘Please come tomorrow. You’re badly needed to run our new cath lab,’” he said.

Career set for take off
Within a few years, Silverstein went from running the cath lab at the Kenyatta National Hospital to heading its cardiology unit. Additionally, Silverstein was promoted to senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi Medical School. “I had just arrived for the first graduating class, so everybody from the second graduating class onward were my students,” he said.

In 1977, he was named chief cardiothoracic physician for the government of Kenya, and in 1983, he was asked by the then Kenya president Daniel Arap Moi to be his personal physician.

“The exciting part is that I got to travel with him all around the world,” said Silverstein. “Whenever the Head of State traveled overseas, I would go too. I was in the Great Hall of the People in China during Deng Xiaoping’s time,” he noted.

Along the way, Silverstein would also care for the first attorney general in Kenya as well as former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. Two years later, Silverstein happened to be at the same hotel as Mandela was walking through a hallway.

“When a Head of State walks through the halls, we all move to the side,” Silverstein said. “When he passed by me, he said, ‘Dr. Silverstein, I’m still alive. You’re a better doctor than you thought.’ I couldn’t believe he remembered my name,” laughed Silverstein.

A celebrity in his own right
But Mandela’s recognition of Silverstein was no surprise to his wife, Channa Commanday, a nurse practitioner. “He’s very famous in Kenya,” said Commanday. “He’s famous among the medical people, and it’s a big honor for the young residents to get a spot rotating with him,” she said.

But the road to success came with its own set of challenges. Shortly after Silverstein arrived to Kenya, he quickly had to learn Swahili to communicate with his patients. Now he’s fluent in four languages and comfortable with six. Despite his service in the Air Force, Silverstein had a tremendous fear of flying. To overcome his fear, he earned his pilot’s license.

“Somehow I was convinced that the only way I was going to relax is if I learned how to fly,” he said. “I was also a control freak.”

Relaxation found in many forms
After establishing a private practice, Silverstein bought a farm in Lake Naivasha in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya. The farm, with many chickens, cows, horses, geese, dogs, and cats, has become a place of refuge and peace for him and his wife.

“I go out and I jog in the morning with giraffes, zebra’s impalas, warthogs and eland,” he said.  “I think they’re beginning to know who I am now,” he joked. “Hippos are also in the background, and occasionally a buffalo, which is a little more exciting.”

Silverstein, the father of four young men, met Channa at Nairobi Hospital, where she was working at the time. Their first date followed the bombing of the American Embassy in 1998. After a full-days work treating nearly 500 patients, they had dinner together. “We’ve been together ever since,” said Commanday.

Despite the distance, Silverstein has kept the University of Chicago close to mind and is a member of the Alumni Leadership Society and the Maroon Loyalty Society. Today, he continues to practice at Nairobi Hospital, teach at the University of Nairobi, and has managed to cut back his hours to just 12 a day. A ravenous reader who is academically driven, Silverstein says he still has more to accomplish.

“I’ve really enjoyed the type of medicine I get to practice,” Silverstein said. “It’s been very challenging and a lot of fun.  I know I’ve made a big difference to a lot of people. Many of my friends and colleagues in the United States have retired due to burn out. To be honest with you, I don’t think I’ll ever retire as I haven’t found anything more fun than being a doctor in Africa.”

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