Greatest Person: Beaumont Doctor Embraces His Moral Obligations
Oncologist Dr. Richard Keidan finds happiness in social justice through the foundation he created – in memory of Cranbrook teen Miles Levin – to help the people of Nepal.
The determination to treat human beings with dignity and equality was taught to Dr. Richard Keidan at home, school and at synagogue. Keidan says Judaism taught him that social justice is not a choice, it’s an obligation.
It's that conviction, and a trip nearly 30 years ago to Nepal, that led the Royal Oak doctor and West Bloomfield resident on a journey that has impacted countless lives of people 7,500 miles away.
Keidan, is the director of Beaumont Health System’s Multidisciplinary Melanoma Clinic. From his Royal Oak office, he readily admits his life is blessed. He and wife, Betsy, have two children—Rachel, 21, a senior at the University of Michigan, and son Micah, 18, is a freshman at Michigan State University.
The oncologist has a rewarding practice (he was named Detroit Hour Magazine's Top Docs in 2010 and 2011) and all the advantages that come with a successful career. But after talking to Keidan for a while, it is easy to overlook his many achievements and begin admiring him most for his humble faith.
A Higher Calling
“There is a saying, ‘One goes to the Himalayas to see the mountains, but returns for the culture,' ” said Keidan, who went to Nepal for the first time in 1982 on a climbing trek. While there, he was invited to stay in homes with no access to clean water or toilets and he slept on straw mats.
Despite living in the most primitive of conditions, Keidan said the people had a “sense of contentment” that drew him back. “Nepal became a sanctuary for me,” he said.
Far away from the comforts of suburban Detroit, Keidan could reflect on what was “truly important” in life, and he returned to Nepal many times to do so.
In 2009, Keidan crossed paths with Everest climber Namgyal Sherpa on a trek in eastern Nepal. Namgyal is somewhat of a local hero in Nepal, summitting Everest multiple times and leading an expedition to bring down more than 4,000 pounds of garbage and dead bodies from what is referred to as Everest’s “Death Zone.”
Namgyal and the Royal Oak doctor formed a kindred spirit and the pair decided to team together to help the people of Khotang, one of the 75 districts of Nepal, where Namgyal grew up.
The gentlemen went on a fact-finding mission to determine what they could do to meet the needs of the people of Khotang and the Miles Levin Nepal Foundation for Health and Education was established.
Miles from Home
The foundation was named in honor of Miles Levin, an 18-year-old blogging pheomenon who wrote about living with a rare form of pediatric cancer on carepages.com. He passed away in 2007, shortly after graduating from Cranbrook.
“I really got to know Miles through his writings,” Keidan said. “He never complained about his health. He wrote: 'Dying is not what scares me. It's dying and having no impact.' ”
Miles' father, Jon Levin, is a friend and neighbor of Keidan. Levin said the doctor approached Levin and his wife, Nancy, about starting the Nepal foundation in Miles' honor.
"He told us he came up with the idea on a bicycling trek," Levin said. "He's always doing a lot of noodling in his head."
Levin believes the foundation is a tribute to his son in a couple of ways.
"It extends Mile's impact beyond his life span, and it uses Miles as an example of the best available health care," Levin said. "There is a huge gap between the superior quality of care Miles had and these villagers in Nepal. Richard wanted to close the gap."
Levin said the first fundraiser Keidan organized for the foundation raised $100,000.
"That was amazing. He's got 350 to come to the Comedy Castle for his first event," he said. "He was able to do it because he has a very magnetic personality."
Assembling the Foundation
So often relief efforts focus on what it is believed that people need, rather than asking a community what it is they want, Keidan said. To make sure the people of Khotang had a stake in the work of his foundation, the doctor asked them to write a proposal for a project they wanted that included how they would be vested in terms of providing some money and supplies.
"I think many people involved in foreign aid go into the situation thinking they have the solutions. This is doomed to fail," Keidan said. "Just because we have formal educations and money doesn't mean we have the answers, and know what is best for people."
The villagers determined their community needed toilets after water tested positive for fecal bacteria. They put together a proposal that would have a toilet in every home for the population of 1,500.
In addition, a school was needed. Keidan donated $2,600 to purchase land after the government agreed to build a school for grades 1 through 8.
The foundation has also partnered with a Nepalese medical school to address medical care via a health post that includes traditional “faith healers” and a birthing center.
Since Keidan was not formally trained for what he is doing, he sought out and found a mentor. Ben Ayers, the Nepal director of the dZi Foundation has been working with Keidan, helping him focus on a few programs and ideas. The dZi Foundation works to advance education and health in in remote regions of the Himalaya.
"The first time I met Richard, he seemed to be a typical tourist who wants to do good," said Ayers. "But I learned he is a pretty unqiue character. He has tenacity and a willingness to learn. And he has a super good heart. There is more to him than meets the eye."
Ayers describes Keidan as "high energy" and someone "who wants to do it all."
"It's a knee-jerk reaction that gets us all into this," Ayers said. "So I try to help him be more focused, not all over the board. I tell him to remember what his strengths are. Over time, I believe he will help change the medical system in Nepal."
"If I am a good student (of Ayers and the dZi foundation), this should hopefully minimize the common mistakes people would make in my shoes," Keidan said. "And if I make mistakes, everyone does in life, I am hoping they will be smaller and less frequent because I have been a good listener."
You Got to Have Faith
Through his work in Nepal, Keidan believes he has found a new life – one that is based on embracing the moral obligations of social justice as taught to him by his parents and faith.
The doctor says he has never been happier (and busier) in his dual role of providing cancer research and treatment in Royal Oak and raising money to improve the health care and education for the children of Khotang.
Keidan has a vigorous constitution according to his friends.
"He gets by with very little sleep," Levin said. "He gets up at 5 a.m., performs delicate surgery, squeezes in a bike ride, works on the foundation and still keeps his sense of humor."
"He is unbelievable," Levin said.
With the support of his family he spends roughly three months per year in Nepal.
"Even though I am gone lots, I have always tried to put family first. I never went to Nepal during the kids' vacations, so I could spend time with them," he said.
Keidan and his wife have taken their children to developing countries all over the globe to expose them to the "real world." For his 50th birthday, in 2005, the whole family traveled to Himalaya so they could understand his love for Nepal first-hand.
Like his parents, Keidan is teaching his children the concept of social justice.
"They have personally been to Nepal to understand the needs there," he said. "Hopefully they are proud of what we are accomplishing."
Donations made to the Keidan's foundation are tax deductible, and may be sent to the Miles Levin Nepal Foundation for Health and Education, 2035 Bayou, West Bloomfield, MI, 48323.
Jon Levin has written a book about his son's life called "Keep Fighting, Stop Struggling: The Miles Levin Story" that is available through www.levinstory.com.