The Extraordinary Ordinary: Koen Van Rompay

[Originally published November 4, 2015]

By Jennifer Ann Gordon, Repower Yolo's Storyteller

Koen Van Rompay is a radiant man. “I learned the essence of life. Life is much more satisfying when you share what you have,” he said. And share he does. A Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and a Ph.D., Koen is a Full Research Virologist at UCD who lives a life of compassion and care in the lab…and everywhere else, too.

His AIDS research has contributed significantly to the development of a therapeutic and preventive drug. “I am but a humble link in the chain,” he said. But when Koen takes his lab coat off, he tackles the AIDS epidemic in a different way. Sahaya International.

Koen founded Sahaya International to  address the social aspects of the AIDS epidemic: poverty, illiteracy, and women having no rights. From its beginnings in India, Sahaya has grown to Kenya, Vietnam, Philippines and Sri Lanka. Director Andy Lauer made an award-winning 20-minute documentary about Sahaya International, Sahaya…Going Beyond, which was narrated by Jeremy Irons.

In 1997, Koen went to India to present his HIV research at an AIDS conference.  He said, “The poverty was overwhelming. I asked myself, ‘How can the world close their eyes?’ I had no social training. I was not a politician. But I had to do something. If I could permanently improve the life of just one child, that would be good.”

“I think people  have to feel loved and have hope. Hope is the strong medicine.”

How did a young Belgian veterinarian come to be an AIDS researcher at UC Davis? After becoming a veterinarian, Koen wondered, “Whatever was I going to do? I needed courage.” His passion was wildlife and zoo animals. He found inspiration when Michael Jackson came to Belgium and sang Man In the Mirror:

I'm starting with the man in the mirror

I'm asking him to change his ways

And no message could have been any clearer

If you want to make the world a better place

Take a look at yourself, and then make a change

(Michael Jackson)

Then Koen read Zoo Animal Medicine, which was edited by Dr. Murray Fowler from UC Davis. This was the first he had heard of UC Davis. He applied for a scholarship to UCD through the Belgian American Educational Foundation. The one-year fellowship was his segue into HIV research. Five years later, Koen had earned his Ph.D.  And he has been here in Davis ever since.

Koen travels to India every winter to see how the children are doing. He “emptied his bank account” to build a five bedroom guesthouse in one of the villages, so that Sahaya supporters, social workers and others would have a place to stay. The guesthouse is next to the schools and one of Koen’s favorite things is to play with the children during their recesses. Some of the children had never seen the ocean, even though they are only two hours away. So Koen takes the children on field trips to the beach to introduce to them the joys of sand and surf. 

“An act of kindness inspires. Be a drop of water that creates a ripple,” said Koen. “Each of us can make a difference, if we just take a step.”

Koen, thank you for exuding such joy, courage, affection, compassion and generosity...for being love-in-action. Thank you for helping rid the world of AIDS. Thank you for empowering women and saving the lives of children and their families. Thank you for starting a love epidemic that floods our community and reaches the world’s most impoverished places. Thank you for being so extraordinary.