African Connection

A marriage of medicine and mission

By and

What do you get when you cross a family practice doctor working with displaced Vietnamese on the Mekong River with an oral and maxillofacial surgeon working with the poorest of the poor at Galmi Hospital in Niger? You get an oral surgeon who can do C-sections and a general practitioner who knows a whole lot about the oral cavity! You also get a bang up team of CAMA doctors who recently transitioned from Cameroon to the Koutiala Hospital for Women and Children in Mali.

In 2001, Rick and Beth Drummond, founders of NewHope Ministries, invited Dr. Huyen Tranberg (then with TEAM [The Evangelical Alliance Mission] in Vietnam) to see NewHope’s work in Cambodia. On a small boat, Huyen toured Vietnamese villages along the Mekong River with pastor Thu and Hanh Nguyen (Canadian C&MA). Asking her to join them, Rick and Beth offered Huyen the “sweet deal” of a riverfront apartment and a vehicle as well as the boat to get to these remote villages for her medical work.

Huyen thanked them but declined. But after one sleepless night, she was convinced that Cambodia was indeed the place where God wanted her to minister. During the next five years there, she assisted in planting a village church (Prek Kdam), helped start women’s ministries among the C&MA Vietnamese and did medical clinics in that boat on the Mekong, all while operating a clinic for church members at the local hospital.

God must sometimes use frustrated, adventurous souls for His work, because an intense desire to spread the gospel wasn’t why I initially went to Africa in 2003 with Compassion and Mercy Associates (CAMA). God had been stirring in my heart, telling me that a life of affluence would not bring happiness and that there was more I could do that would contribute to the Kingdom than simply making money in America. In all honesty, I wanted to see the big, untamed continent. Once there, though, I experienced real life in Africa and a desire took hold to stay and help some of the poorest people in the world.

The adventure was fun for a time, but riding in sweaty bush taxis, nights of 90-degree heat, no electricity and no Starbucks gets old. What didn’t change was God’s direction for me to use the skill He had blessed me with to bring healing to the poor and to use it to help spread the gospel (see Eph. 4:11–16 and 1 Cor. 12).

In 2004 Phil Skellie, director for CAMA Services, hosted a conference in Thailand for CAMA workers. My time in Africa was half over, so I thought I’d see Asia, too, before going home to start “real” life. Well, guess who else was at this conference? The rest is history. Two years later, Phil married Huyen and me in Minnesota and still tries to take credit for this match made in heaven.

So how do two people in different medical fields find the right place to be maximally useful for God? Huyen can work in large hospitals, tiny clinics, out of someone’s home—or even on a boat! My work usually requires a well-equipped hospital or clinic. (Most people don’t tolerate surgery on their face under local anesthesia!) We moved to Ngaoundere, Cameroon, in 2008 to help start a Pan-African Academy of Christian Surgeons (PAACS) program. For more than two years, Huyen worked maternity and I was assistant director for the PAACS program. Sadly, the PAACS program had to close, and we felt God wanted us to move on.

In April 2011, we spent the hottest month working in Mali to see how we might fit into the team at the Koutiala Hospital for Women and Children. We found that evangelism was important, teamwork and vision were evident, nurses cared about the patients and finances weren’t the determining factor for deciding who got treatment. Additionally, Hope Clinic, a CAMA-supported medical center where we had long wanted to do short-term work, was just two days’ drive away in N’Zao, Guinea.

Just before leaving for Mali in September 2011, we spent six weeks at Hope Clinic, where Huyen did medical consultations and I trained Jean Yaradouno, a recent PAACS graduate. Jean got quite competent at cleft lip repairs, jaw fractures and other assorted facial lumps and bumps and anomalies. Also, we were able to work intensively with Jairus Bohimbo, their anesthetist, training him in pediatric anesthesia and advanced methods for intubation.

We often see amazing medical conditions in Africa, but Guinea seems to have a disproportionately larger share of problems. Huyen consulted with a patient who looked like she had been pregnant for a year. She had developed a large abdomen during her second pregnancy and subsequently miscarried—but her abdomen kept growing. Like many Africans, she went to the national hospital, where care is not always good. After doing a needle tap of her belly, they diagnosed ascites (fluid in the abdomen). No treatment. (Somewhere in the course of events, her husband left her because of this mass!)

The woman found her way to Hope Clinic, and Huyen did an ultrasound, discovering that the problem was actually an ovarian cyst. Huyen and Dr. Yaradouno removed the 15-pound mass in a one-hour surgery. Unfortunately, we weren’t there long enough to visit with the woman postoperatively. Since the gospel is shared with everyone who receives treatment at Hope Clinic, we can pray that the Holy Spirit will transform this patient’s heart as one short surgery did her body.

It seems that whenever we’re in the United States, we get a call from Haza Hassana, one of my patients from Cameroon! Haza lived near the Cameroon/Chad border. During the war in Chad, she was shot in the face with an AK-47, and the bullet passed through her cheeks. Both sides of her jaw were fractured, and Haza ended up with a locked jaw because her teeth had been inappropriately wired together. Also, she had a huge palatal fistula (a hole in the roof of her mouth), so her voice sounded very nasal.

First, I operated on her jaw, but it opened only about a half centimeter afterward and broke again in the process. Since she spoke French well, sharing the gospel was easy. Pastor Abdoulaye, a former Muslim, talked with her about Jesus during the weeks she was hospitalized. I could tell she was interested, but, because she was Muslim, she was reluctant to hear too much. After we repaired her broken jaw, I told Haza to come back in about six months and gave her a French-language tract to read on the 14-hour ride home.

When Haza returned, we did more-aggressive surgery and extensive scar and bone excisions. After a few hours of hard work, her mouth opened to a normal 3–4 centimeters. I could finally see to repair her palatal fistula. The next day she opened her mouth wide with the help of a rather torturous dental mouth prop to force her jaw open (what we call “physical therapy”).

Interestingly, as we were leaving Cameroon, we met a national pastor from southern Cameroon who was being sent as a missionary to the north, very close to Haza’s home. We briefed Pastor Thomas about all that Haza had been through and how we had been sharing the gospel with her. He has since met with her a couple of times; to date, she is still resistant but has a gentle spirit, and we pray that the Holy Spirit will work in her heart.

Medical work can be frustrating because it is so consuming; people don’t cease being sick after 5 p.m. or on weekends. Often, we cannot set boundaries without being thought of as uncaring. As a result, we usually don’t get to see the spiritual fruits of our labors. We are dependent on working as a team where those who are gifted in language or evangelism can do their part, all contributing to the work of Christ. We would love to have successes in evangelism to report, because medical or surgical results are short lived. But if we’re not satisfied to do our part of cultivating, planting and watering while letting others reap, then we’re missing the opportunity to fulfill His truest calling on our lives.

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