In a one-room mud house with a tin roof on the outskirts of Nairobi, Matthew Loftus sat with 6-year-old Vera, whose mouth was infected with sores. The frail child was bundled up in a long sweater and hat, shivering in the arms of a nursing student.
While tending to the AIDS-stricken child in the summer of 2005, Loftus found his calling.
"I remember feeling helplessness. I couldn't do anything for her but to pray for her and comfort her," the Harford County resident said. "I felt like with the right training, I could help her and help people like her by working with them and helping to change their community."
This month, the 20-year-old native of Bel Air took a step in that direction when he began his first year as a medical student at the University of Maryland. And yesterday, Loftus, the eldest of 13 children, received a significant boost when the formal announcement was made that he was a recipient of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Graduate Program scholarship, meaning that his medical school tuition will be covered.
The scholarship program, which is billed by the foundation as the richest award for graduate students, gives recipients up to $50,000 annually for up to six years of graduate studies.
"It is the largest scholarship for graduate students as far as I am aware of," said Amy Weinstein, executive director of the National Scholarship Providers Association, a scholarship-advocacy organization in Denver. "By anybody's standards, it's a generous award."
Loftus, who was one of the 34 students across the nation and in 11 other countries selected for the scholarship, was selected from a pool of 977 nominees. Each college or university may nominate two students each year.
"Matt comes from a solidly middle-class background," said Joshua Wyner, executive vice president of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. "Matt impressed us as someone who was incredibly bright and able. He applied that ability on behalf of others and had strong need because he comes from a family of 13 children."
Loftus grew up home-schooled by his mother in Bel Air.
"Home schooling really gave me the flexibility to learn at my own pace," Loftus said. "Because of that, I was able to start community college early."
At the age of 14, he took classes at Harford Community College, where he compiled a 4.0 grade-point average.
In 2004, he won the Cooke foundation's Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, which awards funds to undergraduate community college students who want to transfer to a four-year university.
"We thought he was somebody worth investing in," Wyner said. "He proved us right during his undergraduate years. He continued strong public service work and excelled in his pre-med program."
Jack Kent Cooke, the late owner of the Washington Redskins, left most of his fortune to the scholarship foundation after his death in 1997.
With the boost from his first Cooke scholarship, Loftus transferred to University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
As the youngest student in the college courses, classmates nicknamed him "Doogie Howser." Like Howser, the precocious teenage doctor in the 1989-1993 TV show, Loftus resolved to pursue medicine.
Loftus looks up to Dr. Paul Farmer, the Harvard physician who treated tuberculosis patients in Haiti.
"He's definitely one of my heroes," Loftus said. "I see myself more on the clinical side of things, but I do hope to integrate social justice, primary care and community development."
Like his hero, Loftus has traveled to the slums in developing countries. On church mission trips to Kenya, Haiti and Mexico, Loftus saw abject poverty and deplorable health conditions.
"I really want to do international health," he said. "I'd like to divide my time between primary care and clinical work and training local health workers, in whatever country I work in, to create a more integrated and holistic health care system."
In hopes of practicing medicine in the Middle East or Africa, Loftus studied in Egypt and Yemen to learn Arabic, and for three summers has spent time in Kenya working with a church missionary and learning Swahili.
"I have a strong heart for Sudan," he said. "I met many Sudanese refugees in Kenya. But we'll see."
While Loftus was in Yemen in June, his mother sent him an e-mail in all capital letters that he had won the graduate student scholarship.
"The first time he won the scholarship was a huge blessing for him. The second time, we were speechless," said his mother, Renee Loftus. "It takes tremendous stress off of us. We have two kids in college and two in diapers."
When Loftus is not overseas or in class, he enjoys playing classical guitar and spending time with his family.
"If you saw the Cheaper by the Dozen movie, the movie is slapstick and that's what our life is like a lot of the time," he said. "When I come home every weekend, there's a bunch of people running outside to hug me and wanting me to jump on the trampoline with them.
"It's a really special feeling. I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world."