The Choices That Shape Us

Written by Alison Johnson
Surgeon and author Dr. Harry Kraus Jr. chose theroad less traveled in his medical career

Relocating to Africa for six years in the middle of his medical career wasn’t a smart move for Dr. Harry Kraus Jr., in terms of finances or ambition.

But what Kraus gained from his decision to focus on often-desperate patients—sometimes flanked by security guards with automatic weapons—was nothing he’d ever trade.

“You cannot see the tragic plight of the poor and underserved without becoming a profoundly grateful person,” he says. “You also learn you can find common ground with anyone, even if it’s only that a person loves his kids like I love mine.”

Kraus, a general surgeon at Riverside Doctors’ Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia, and a prolific author of medical thrillers, was based in Kenya and did outreach missions to Somalia. He first went to Africa for three weeks  in 2002 as a substitute surgeon with a Christian humanitarian organization but opted for longer-term sabbaticals  from practice in Harrisonburg, Virginia, partly at the urging of his oldest son, then 13. Over the next 10 years, his family spent a total of six years in Kenya.  

“He said, ‘Dad, tell Mom to pack her bags—this will be OK for us,’” Kraus, 54 , remembers. Kristine, who became a nurse at her three boys’ international school, also supported Kraus’ trips into Somalia, where a tinted car whisked him around because his skin color attracted too much attention. “We just thought, ‘If not us, then who else is going to help these people?’” Kraus recalls.

Kraus helped train African doctors and handled a wide range of cases, including thyroid growths, esophageal cancer, enlarged prostates and complications from HIV/AIDS and malaria. He saved gunshot victims, removed goiters the size of second heads and treated one 19-year-old woman with an eight-pound breast tumor. His family lived in apartments an hour outside Nairobi, Kenya, where his boys thrilled at adventures such as chasing after giraffes and zebras on motorbikes.

Harry and Kristine settled in  Williamsburg once all of their children had returned to America for career or college ; one is an Air Force pilot, two are aspiring doctors. He has a new appreciation for how clean and well-equipped American hospitals are but also will conserve resources if possible: “Why use expensive surgical glue for $50 when a 10-cent Band-Aid will do just as well?”  

As a writer, Kraus has published 19 books, producing about one a year. Along with fictional thrillers starring doctors, he has penned non-fiction volumes centered on faith.  

Kraus doesn’t rule out a return to Africa in retirement, if he stays healthy. “The experiences that stretched me and my family,” he says, “were the best things that ever happened to us.”

About the author

Alison Johnson

Alison Johnson is a freelance writer who specializes in feature stories on health, nutrition and fitness, as well as biographical profiles. A former full-time newspaper reporter, she has worked for two Virginia dailies and the Associated Press in Richmond. She lives in Yorktown, Va., with her husband and two sons.