The remarkable life of Dr. Helmut Diefenthal

By Dr. Adrian Thomas, columnist

October 24, 2019 -- The death of Dr. Helmut Diefenthal on 30 June 2019 at age 95 brought to an end a remarkable life. He was born in Germany in 1924 and after wartime conscription trained as a doctor. Following his marriage to Rotraut Garstka, he accepted a position with the Lutheran Church of America.

His young family initially went to Malaysia for medical missionary work and then moved to East Africa, where Diefenthal worked at a Lutheran hospital in Gonja, Tanzania. In 1965 when a new hospital was planned in Moshi, Tanzania -- the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center (KCMC) -- Diefenthal became aware of the need for radiology and so ventured to Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., where he trained as a radiologist and Garstka as a radiographer.

Dr. Helmut Diefenthal
Dr. Helmut Diefenthal at his Minneapolis home in 2016. Image courtesy of Scott Takushi, Pioneer Press.

They returned to Tanzania in 1971 to run the radiology department. After two years, they went back to Minnesota (where their children attended college) and stayed until Diefenthal's retirement from the Veteran's Hospital in 1988. However, when many would be golfing and fishing, Diefenthal and Garstka returned to Tanzania as self-supporting missionaries at KCMC.

Diefenthal became a radiologist and professor of radiology at Tumaini University, where he introduced ultrasound to KCMC while Garstka developed radiography. The work was a true and full partnership between husband and wife, and the high standard of radiography was due to the work of Garstka. Diefenthal saw the urgent need for ultrasound in small remote clinics and in 1991 organized an international conference at KCMC: Ultrasound in Africa.

In 1993 the Kilimanjaro School of Radiology was opened by Diefenthal at the request of the Tanzanian government. The school trains assistant medical officers in radiology and also medical radiologists.

Diefenthal with students
Dr. Helmut Diefenthal with students at the Kilimanjaro School of Radiology in 2010. Image courtesy of Diefenthal.

Diefenthal finally retired from full-time work at the age of 90 and moved back to Minnesota in 2014, but he continued to support the KCMC. While Diefenthal received many awards, such as the American College of Radiology (ACR) Global Humanitarian Award in 2015, his memorial is at the KCMC, where he influenced and inspired many staff and where he and his wife cared for many patients.

When Dr. Douglas Beall, director of interventional services at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, U.S., visited KCMC, he had "an absolutely unique experience to work in a somewhat technologically dependent specialty in the Third World."

The KCMC International Office accepts foreign students applying for electives or volunteers who wish to undertake voluntary work within the hospital. More information is available on the KCMC website.

The comments and observations expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, nor should they be construed as an endorsement or admonishment of any particular vendor, analyst, industry consultant, or consulting group.

Copyright © 2019
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