Young Doctor Defies Odds, Plans to Practice in Tucson

Michael Lokale overcame a rough childhood to excel in family medicine. He is finishing a residency at the UA and, in July, plans to join a practice in Tucson.
June 11, 2013

As a boy growing up in Kenya, Michael Lokale – a University of Arizona resident in family medicine – knew he wanted to be a doctor. In his teens, when he began making plans for college, he knew his best shot at getting the education he wanted would be in the United States.

His cousin, Paul Ereng, told him how to apply for a National Collegiate Athletic Association scholarship. Ereng attended the University of Virginia on an NCAA scholarship. He was a freshman when he won the 1988 Olympic gold medal in the 800-meter race in Seoul.

Lokale – pronounced lo-KAH-lay – also a champion runner, heeded his cousin's advice. The NCAA gave him a four-year scholarship to Virginia Military Institute. There, he excelled academically, while winning two Southern Conference championships in the 400 and 800 meters. He was named three times to the Southern Conference Academic Honor Roll.

After graduating in 2003, Lokale went to England on a prestigious Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University, where he spent two years in cardiac physiology research and published two papers.

From Oxford, he returned to the U.S. and the University of Virginia School of Medicine. He he spent eight months doing research in biomedical engineering before enrolling for four years of medical school.

Today, Lokale is wrapping up his third and final year of training with the UA family medicine residency program. In July, he will join a small group of family doctors here in Tucson. He and his wife, Kathy, whom he met at Oxford, want to stay here. This is where her parents live, and they want their almost-2-year-old son Griffin to grow up knowing his grandparents.

"I'm tickled that I'm doing what I'm doing," said Lokale. "I never could have imagined that all this would happen, because I came from a very poor background."

Lokale's story of one outstanding achievement after another is all the more amazing considering his rough beginnings.

His father died when Lokale was only 2 months old. That meant he and his mother had to move away from their tribe and find another that would accept her. It also meant they would have no belongings, for under tribal law she could not inherit anything from her husband.

Lokale grew up speaking Swahili, the national language of Kenya; English, the country's official language; and two tribal languages: the one of his father's tribe and the one with which he grew up.

Lokale has been back to Kenya several times since he left, most recently in July 2011, to volunteer at a clinic in Kitale, where he grew up. "I saw 70 patients in half a day," he said, "because there, there is no paperwork and no labs. You just kind of listen and see what you can do for them. It was a really neat experience."

To Lokale, being a family doctor means being "a complete doctor. You get to see people when they are born. You deliver them, and you follow them throughout their lives. You form relationships with them. You know their stories. I think that's very cool."

As Lokale tells his story, his laughter and bright smile fill the room. "I am a happy person," he said. "It seems I have had such a blessed life. I just feel like God has opened all these doors for me. It's amazing."