Get to know: John Rectenwald ’68, supporting efforts to improve vision in West Africa

Headshot of John Rectenwald
John Rectenwald

John Rectenwald ’68 knows process.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in Architecture, he spent five years in the Navy, became a decorated Vietnam War vet and was a member of the White House military staff where he ran the operations at Camp David.  He returned to Michigan and worked for years with Detroit-based Smith Group, one of the longest continually operating architecture and engineering firms in the United States.

He also ran his own design-build and project management firms, introducing infrastructure technologies and managing low-cost housing, wastewater treatment, water conservation and other technology transfer projects in the United States and developing countries, primarily in West Africa.

“Success came from managing the process and not the people,” he said. “My job was to make others successful.”

It’s a skillset he has employed in a fight against preventable blindness he saw as epidemic in Africa.

Having spent nearly a year in various West African countries providing technologies, technology transfer and management services for local projects, Rectenwald was struck by the strong link between preventable disease and poverty. He decided that instead of focusing on infrastructure projects to boost the local economy, he should find ways to better use existing labor. He focused on eliminating a contributor to the cycle of poverty in a way that would also benefit the people living there.

In developing areas of Africa, blindness becomes an economic burden that feeds the cycle of poverty. There is little opportunity for work for those with impaired sight and other family members are removed from school or the work force because they are needed to provide care.

Rectenwald decided to tackle trachoma, a highly contagious eye infection and the leading cause of preventable blindness in the world. He felt that rather than taking on the costly tasks of curing or preventing the disease, his goal should be the elimination of trachoma’s symptoms, effectively interrupting its progression to blindness.

“My job was to figure out how to do it and empower Africans to treat Africans,” he said. “I couldn’t be successful until they created their own success.”

His concept was to address the issue from the ground up.

“Typical top-down interventions by international organizations that fund large operations aren’t sustainable. For the most part, they provide temporary relief and are only available on a schedule determined by others,” Rectenwald said. “I viewed the issue as a logistics one —  leverage existing African research or other treatment networks by adding an effective trachoma intervention, using a system the people can control and afford. Effectively, we created a distribution operation that functions on demand and only for their benefit. It sounds crazy, but I modeled it after the most effective pull-distribution system I could think of – the illicit drug trade.”

It worked.

About five years ago, a friend told Rectenwald “the biggest sin in the world is that we don’t use the skills and opportunities we’ve been given to do what we’re here to do.”

For years, he had been thinking about repurposing the medical treatments he had received for various infections and diseases he had brought back from Africa. So, working with a trusted group of university-based African Ph.D. biochemists, pharmacologists, parasitologists and doctors, he helped them test various interventions against trachoma.

Using one off-label immune system stimulant Rectenwald supplied, the group established a pilot program to test 250 people. It was so successful that they created a sustainable trachoma intervention operation.  To date, over 13,000 children and adults have had all trachoma symptoms eliminated, independent of the stage of the disease, at a 100% rate of success.

In the nonprofit’s website, www.sustainablesight.org, he puts it like this: “To sustainably alleviate trachoma’s burden, Africans must weigh treatment alternatives, make their own choices and implement their own methods.  Africans must treat themselves.”  He added: “Success began the day I gave everything to them and got out of their away.”

Sustainable treatment operations are based on the trachoma sufferer’s ability to pay, which doesn’t produce excess funding to accommodate growth. The Africans are prepared and anxious to expand their trachoma treatment to other areas of the country where the disease is endemic.

Rectenwald’s next task is to find donors to fund the nonprofit’s growth to reach the tens of thousands of trachoma sufferers they are prepared to treat in this way. They then become part of the process.

To learn more about Sustainable Sight, visit sustainablesight.org.

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