Medical experts in remote corners of Tanzania can now peek inside their patients using portable ultrasound devices — a lifesaving advance. At major hospitals in the country, more high-tech imaging machines have reduced the guesswork in diagnosing illnesses.
Radiology expertise remains scarce across much of sub-Saharan Africa, but its gradual spread across Tanzania has been thanks in part to Dr. Helmut Diefenthal, who committed his life to the cause. The German-born physician launched a pioneering radiology training program, created a foundation to expand access to radiology in the region, and worked tirelessly into his 90s to train and equip more medical professionals there.
A part-time Minneapolis resident for much of the last half century, Diefenthal died on June 30 at age 95.
His medical career began with a jolt in the 1940s when the German army drafted him as a medic, despite his Jewish heritage, and sent him to a potentially lethal post treating typhus patients.
“I said if I survived the war and the Nazis, I would live a life of service,” Diefenthal told the Pioneer Press in 2016. “And I did survive.”
He was ultimately discharged after the army promoted him and then discovered his father was half Jewish. Following the war, Diefenthal earned his medical degree in Berlin and became a medical missionary with the Lutheran Church of America. In the early 1960s, Diefenthal and his wife, Rotraut, moved with their children to an assignment in the mountains of northeast Tanzania.
After years at a small village hospital, Diefenthal volunteered to become a radiologist at a new hospital nearby. This led the family to Minnesota, where Diefenthal spent years studying at the University of Minnesota. After returning to Tanzania to start the radiology department at Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center (KCMC) in Moshi, the family moved back to Minnesota so the children could attend college.
While working at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Diefenthal began laying the groundwork for his next chapter. He took night classes at a school on Lake Street to learn how to repair X-ray machines and other medical machinery. He and a colleague founded East Africa Medical Assistance Foundation to support radiology in Tanzania.
When he retired in 1988, Diefenthal and his wife began spending most of their time in Tanzania.
“Some people go golfing or fishing,” said his son, George Diefenthal. “This is what he wanted for his retirement.”
In 1993, he started the Kilimanjaro School of Radiology and began training medical professionals who took their expertise — and often equipment covered by the foundation — to rural parts of Tanzania.
The imaging technology could mean the difference between life and death, particularly by avoiding deadly complications during childbirth.
“He knew that if he could get ultrasound machines out to the small remote clinics and if there were someone there who could correctly interpret the images, that all of these deaths could be prevented,” said Jim Halverson, the president of the foundation, which continues to support equipment upgrades at KCMC.
“Because of him we have moved forward. We have modern machines right now,” said Dr. Adnan Sadiq, a former Diefenthal student who runs KCMC’s radiology department.
Diefenthal is survived by his wife, Rotraut, daughters Marianne Cooper of Minnesota and Ela Whelan of Oregon, and sons George Diefenthal and John Diefenthal of California. Services are slated for late January.