His mantra: If someone asks for my help, that’s all I need; we provide help.
Dr. Wasim Ellahi was recruited to come to Peoria more than 20 years ago, and when he died Oct. 5, he left a legacy of help, compassion and inspiration for patients, doctors, nurses, students and the community.
Ellahi saw firsthand the suffering of uninsured people in his country of Pakistan. As a young medical resident in Chicago, he dreamed of one day opening a charitable clinic for the underprivileged and under insured that would provide not basic primary care but specialty care for advanced diseases like cancer, diabetes and crippling arthritis.
He was the driving force in founding Cordoba Healthcare clinic, a medical facility that helps poor and uninsured patients receive treatment by specialists. By the time the clinic opened in July 2016, Ellahi had shared his dream with dozens of doctors, nurses and healthcare providers who joined him in his mission. They became the volunteer corps that works at the clinic, 711 W. John Gwynn Jr. Ave., every Sunday afternoon. One of the regular, greatly loved physician-volunteers was Dr. Greg Adamson who died in June 2019. Adamson worked a full shift at Cordoba two days before he died.
During the week, the Cordoba staffers work full-time in demanding jobs in the medical field. Many have young families at home, yet they volunteer to serve and share in the mission. The clinic operates Sunday afternoons at Heartland Clinic during hours when Heartland is closed.
Because there is no paid staff, the clinic is able to provide specialty medical care for more than 600 patients a year on an annual budget of about $15,000. Ellahi and other staff frequently reached out to secure reduced rates for medications, surgeries and tests for Cordoba patients.
“He was so selfless and humble. He took care of everyone before himself,” said Kathy Mohns, his office nurse of 19 years at Peoria Gastroenterology Institute during the week and volunteer clinic nurse every Sunday afternoon. “I don’t know how I can go on without him. But we promised his children we’d keep this clinic going.”
Medical students from University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria and nursing students from Methodist College are among the volunteers at Cordoba.
Mohns said in the days after Ellahi died, she received notes and calls from young doctors around the country who had volunteered at Corboda during medical school.
“So many of them told me they would not be the doctors they are today without Dr. Ellahi,” she said. “I am thankful for Dr. Ellahi. I don’t know anyone like him, and I’m grateful he was in my life for as long as he was. He never told anyone he had no time. ‘No’ was not in his vocabulary.”
Mohns said she always thought of herself as a caring person and then she met Ellahi and witnessed caring and selflessness beyond what she had understood possible.
Nurse Jessica Davis said she had been frustrated by feeling a need to give and help but was uncertain how. Then she met Ellahi and he shared his mission.
“He was like a father and mentor to me,” said Davis, a regular clinic volunteer. “He showed me how to channel my need to help people.”
When staff would question how to verify people needed help at Cordoba, Ellahi would wave those questions away.
“All I need is a verbal declaration that someone needs my help,” he would say.
Davis said, “He was so humble. He didn’t like you to praise him so the only thing you could do to honor him was to keep his mission going. There is no one more impactful setting an example of what it means to be a good human being.”
Raisa Ali, a volunteer and lab technician at the clinic, said Ellahi treated all people equally and believed all people deserve access to excellent medical care.
“He never differentiated between people –– where they came from, the color of their skin,” Ali said. “He treated everyone equally with compassion and care,”
That was part of the success of Cordoba, she said. Ellahi made all volunteers feel useful, appreciated and happy to be at Cordoba on Sunday afternoons.
Dr. Noor Khaiser, a gastroenterologist with OSF Healthcare Center, recruited Ellahi who was practicing in New York at the time to come to Peoria.
“He was a wonderful human being and friend. He motivated a lot of friends and physicians to share his dream. Sometimes I was flabbergasted by his commitment,”
Khaiser said, adding that of the hundreds of thousands of people he’s met in his lifetime, he ranks Ellahi as one of the most unusual, generous and caring.
During the first Sunday after Ellahi’s death, there was both sadness and focused dedication at the clinic. A young student was volunteering at the front reception desk. He left after the clinic closed for the day, but wrote this note for Community Word:
“I first came when I had heard about all the wonderful stuff the clinic did, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it. What made me excited to come each Sunday was Dr. Ellahi. He was so passionate and happy to be volunteering here each week that it made me excited too. He made everyone feel as though we had an impact here, even me as a high school student. The place would brighten up whenever he came in, and I’m really going to miss that.” – Asiah Adnan
Muhammad Yousaf is president of the board at Cordoba and was on board immediately when Ellahi first called him and shared his vision for a free specialty clinic in Peoria.
“This is our way to give back to the community that has been good to us. We are here to serve humanity,” Yousaf said. “We will continue and carry on this mission to serve people in our society who need our help.”
One patient at the clinic, Khaja, said he has health insurance but the deductible is so high he postponed seeing his doctor. Ellahi noticed Khaja was in constant pain and persuaded him to stop at Cordoba. Khaja was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease and put on a treatment plan that has helped alleviate his pain.
“For me, Dr. Ellahi is a very big loss. He put me on a good treatment plan. He was a wonderful human being and provided good moral support,” Khaja said. “I can’t totally believe that he’s left. The impact he had on my life was so great. He had that impact on so many people’s lives.”
Cordoba Healthcare is a nonprofit. Donations can be sent in honor of Dr. Ellahi to: Cordoba Healthcare, PO Box 3724, Peoria, IL 61612-3724.