A renowned rheumatologist finds out that God has a purpose for him that he never expected: saving lives and making friends in Sierra Leone.
By Gary S. Gilkeson, MD, Distinguished University Professor, Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Faculty Development Medical University of South Carolina
Prior to 10 years ago, not in my wildest dreams did I envision myself being involved with Mercy Hospital or the Child Reintegration Centre. I am a rheumatologist, and research in lupus is my career path.
Twenty odd years ago, when I moved from Duke University to Medical University of South Carolina, I learned about a unique group of African Americans living on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia, called the Gullah or Geechee. It became evident that Gullah individuals had a high prevalence of lupus, with significant morbidity and mortality. At that time, I also learned that the Gullah were forcibly brought to America, particularly to South Carolina, due to their rice growing skills (then the cash crop in Charleston). Sierra Leone to Senegal was the primary region in West Africa from which the Gullah were taken.
After the civil war, the Gullah remained on the Sea Islands with very little interaction with others on the mainland. In the meantime, papers were published that suggested lupus was rare in West Africa. Given that, as in almost all diseases, lupus is believed to be a result of a genetically susceptible host responding to an environmental factor (infection, toxin) unleashing the immune system to attack the body, and assuming that the Gullah would genetically still be similar to their ancestral forebears, we embarked on a program to define genetic and potential environmental differences in the Gullah and Sierra Leoneans.
Through United Methodist Volunteers In Mission (UMVIM), I was connected with Dr. Darius Magee who is a retired gynecologist in Texas. He had established the West Africa Fistula Foundation in Bo soon after the civil war ended. He worked out of the Bo Government Hospital diagnosing and repairing urethral and bladder damage that occurred during childbirth. Given that he was treating young women, who are at the highest risk for lupus, I accompanied him on three different trips to Bo from 2009 to 2013. I helped out in the ER and clinic at the Government Hospital, while trying to figure out how to address our research questions.
It soon became evident that there was no way to screen the population in Sierra Leone, for it would be unethical, since we could not provide them with long term treatment. We were able, however, to acquire blood samples and subsequent DNA samples from a number of individuals, testing them at the same time for malaria and providing them treatment for malaria if they were positive.
During the last visit to Sierra Leone, I learned of Mercy Hospital and went there for a visit with a colleague. An HCW UMVIM team had arrived the night before and the team leader graciously invited us in for a tour and offered for us to stay for lunch (my first interaction with Fudia). We toured the hospital and the Naval Research Laboratory where I met Rashid, and we began a collaborative effort for genetic studies along with the Helen Keller Foundation.
Each time I went to Bo, I became more and more tied to it and the wonderful people of Sierra Leone. I investigated Helping Children Worldwide and was greatly impressed with the programs they had in Bo. Mary Ann, my wife, also became interested in doing more with HCW. We were able to get our local church, Bethel United Methodist Church, to become a partner church. This all happened during the time of Ebola, so there were no more trips, but through Rashid we were able to send a large number of personal protective equipment to Mercy.
In July of 2018, Mary Ann and I went on our first trip with a HCW team. This was also Mary Ann’s first trip to Sierra Leone. I had a feeling she would feel the draw like I did, and she was immediately overwhelmed at the multiple wonderful things going on in Bo. The eleven others on our team became best friends with whom we still communicate. Of course we met (then-CRC Director) Nabs, his wife Kim, JJ, JB, Rosa, Fudia, Jinnah, Sister Augusta and Dr. Amara. We had taken a large amount of medical equipment and supplies with us donated by MUSC. As many of you are aware, we hated to leave. In July of 2019 we returned for our second trip along with two other Bethel members: Misti, a PhD nutritionist and diabetes educator, and Beth, a neonatal ICU nurse. We reunited with Sharon from Texas, and again were just overwhelmed by our experience on outreach, visiting a village where our church had provided funds for drilling a well, and seeing the children we are sponsoring.
We were on the team for July of 2020, but regrettably it was canceled due to COVID-19. Beth and Misti were planning to return as well. Meanwhile, Mary Ann had been asked to join the Board of Directors and she accepted. We have enjoyed meeting all the other believers and hosting many of them at our home. I have biweekly calls with Dr. Stevens to help in whatever way I can, especially with the COVID-19 virus just hitting there. Mary Ann and a friend of ours have made COVID-19 masks with the outer material made of fabric we brought back from Sierra Leone. The masks are a big hit.
In the end, my experiences in Bo and with HCW are some of the most meaningful experiences in my life. It is especially fun having this relationship for Mary Ann and I to enjoy and support together. We realize we are not changing the world, but for the children we sponsor, and with the equipment and expertise we provide, we believe we are at least changing the world for a few folks in Bo.
Obedience leads to an extraordinary blessing for a missioner as she returns to Sierra Leone.
by Tina DeBoeser, Director of Missions & Outreach, Ebenezer United Methodist Church
I had no plans to go to Africa in 2019. I will say that again - I had no plans to go to Africa in 2019. My year was simply too busy. A year of too much going and too much going on. Although I had been part of a team in 2018 and fell in love with the mission and people, I was not going back in 2019.
That was final.
Ever heard of the old Yiddish proverb, “We plan, God laughs”? I should have known my head’s very reasonable reasons for staying were no match for the Holy Spirit whispering ‘go’!
So I went back to Bo to embrace the people, beauty, dignity, promise, and the mission.
I am no stranger to international missions; I am in fact the Director of Missions & Outreach at a large suburban church. As such, one of my key roles is to recruit, prepare, and send teams around the globe to work with partner organizations like Helping Children Worldwide. I recognize and appreciate what a privileged position I hold, one where I have the freedom to choose to experience these opportunities.
I am also no stranger to the criticisms of short-term mission trips. Many of the concerns raised are valid. When done poorly, a short-term mission trip can actually cause harm and prevent healthy development.
But when we start a trip well prepared, with a humble heart, and the expectation of developing a mutual relationship, it can be a thing of beauty. This has been my experience with HCW.
Returning to Bo in 2019 was especially exciting for me. Part of the trip was devoted to visiting and developing an agreement between HCW, my church and two (of an eventual five) villages. This new formal relationship is the brainchild of HCW and we are thrilled to be the beta test!
Visiting Samie and Fengehun villages was a surreal experience. We were greeted by the senior residents and chiefs, welcomed with song and given the VIP tour of community resources and liabilities.
Once we sat down to hammer out an agreement, it was fascinating to hear the villagers’ hopes for their community’s future. I was so encouraged to hear strong women speak about their aspirations for themselves and their children.
One thing I have learned from short-term missions is the truth about mothers. All mamas, regardless of where on the globe they happen to stand, want the same thing. They want the opportunity to raise their children in a safe environment, free of fear and disease. They want their children to have the opportunity to learn, pursue their purpose, to know that they are valued and loved, and to fall asleep with full bellies.
I believe that much division and fear in the world could be solved with proximity. Taking the time to be in authentic give-and-take relationships with others who do not look, act, buy, speak, think, vote, love, or live like us is the only way to remove the fallacy of ‘otherness’. Sometimes it takes going to the other side of the world to open your eyes and heart to those on this side of the street.
Africa imprints on your soul, just as surely as the beautiful, deep, organic smell clings to your clothes and suitcase long after you have returned home.
Although I have no plans to return in 2020, I believe I can hear God laughing right now.
Learn more about joining a mission team to Sierra Leone: www.helpingchildrenworldwide.org/mission-trips
On Friday, January 18, Mercy Hospital officially opened the doors of its long-awaited Surgical Wing. The celebration included remarks from various dignitaries and Mercy leadership, a welcome song performed by Mercy staff, the Act of Dedication performed by Bishop Yambasu, an official ribbon-cutting and tour of the new surgical wing, and refreshments. Bishop John K. Yambasu, District Medical Officer Dr. Roland Carshon-Marsh, UMC Health Coordinator Catherine Norman, UMC Bo District Superintendent Reverend Francis Charley, Chairman of the UMC Health Board Dr. Dennis Marke, and HCW Executive Director Melody Curtiss each shared remarks at the ceremony.
Reverend Charley opened the ceremony with prayer, stating that “this hospital is a state of the art hospital and is going to provide facilities and treatment for patients in the country and even beyond.” Bishop Yambasu shared that this day is the result of “the passion, dedication and commitment of our friends from the United States. Helping Children Worldwide has been involved in our work with the Child Rescue Centre and Mercy Hospital for more than 20 years.” Catherine Norman reflected on Mercy's history, saying “almost 13 years ago, a one-room health clinic with two health staff was established to provide first aid, nutrition and basic health care to the children of the CRC. In 2007, the building in front of us was transformed into Mercy Hospital. I am glad that today, the dream of a functional surgical building has come true. With this building, Mercy Hospital has now been empowered to provide quality care not only to the Bo, but the entire district, and even beyond.”
The Bishop performed the official Act of Dedication, asking God to “graciously accept this building which we now dedicate to thee, to thy service, and to thy glory, that in it skill and tenderness may unite to bring health and cure to those who come for aid…. Grant that those who come here in weakness may be made strong, that those who come in pain may find relief, and that those who come in sorrow may find joy and gladness.”
On behalf of HCW, Mrs. Curtiss recognized the contributions of all of its donors, particularly the large bequests of Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Stafford, VA, without whose generosity the wing would not have been built, and the Peterson Family Foundation, who sponsored the shipment of surgical supplies and equipment necessary for an operating theatre. Mrs. Curtiss also recognized the special contributions of Mercy Laboratory Technician, Joseph Lamin, who is heading up the launch of Mercy Hospital’s new Electronic Medical Information System (see story at bottom of newsletter).
Mercy’s surgical wing includes two operating theatres, a recovery room, decontamination room, sterilzation room, male and female changing rooms, medical supplies storage, reception and doctors’ consultation rooms. Second floor includes a private and semi-private wards, male and female wards, conference room and ICU. Mercy’s surgical program will operate on a limited capacity, as they await the arrival of a blood bank. Until this important piece of equipment arrives, Mercy will continue to provide the surgeries that it always has, now in a new, state-of-the-art surgical facility. Dr. Amara continues to work with Dr. Boima (a COMAHS professor and surgeon) to assist in surgeries beyond his current level of expertise, and now that those surgeries can be performed at Mercy, other staff will benefit in training opportunities as well.
Qualified surgeons who wish to perform surgeries at Mercy with Dr. Amara’s assistance, will be welcomed for the purpose of providing Mercy staff with teaching opportunities. This will include medical teams from overseas from time to time. Nonprofits utilizing Mercy OR for their own medical missions will do trainings as part of the privilege of performing surgeries at Mercy, and leave behind unused equipment and supplies for future use by Mercy.
Project CURE is scheduled to provide training in obstetrics and critical care to Mercy staff this year, and Dr. Amara and Matron August Kpanebaum will be attending GBGM training in obstetrics and Cesarean-sections in February-March.
On Sunday, March 18th, First UMC of Colleyville held a dual annual kickoff event for their thriving Sponsor A Child initiative, and the Run for Rescue 5K Run/Walk and 1 Mile Fun Run/Walk to support missioners who serve in Sierra Leone. The church members' response was especially enthusiastic, due to a beautiful Sponsor A Child display with photos of students sponsored by church members, and children who need sponsors. Many thanks to everyone who contributed to the event, with special thanks to Ruth Ann Meek, SAC coordinator for First UMC, Karen Roeming, partner church representative, and Sharon Gardner and Neil McKinnon, Run for Rescue organizers. First UMC is grateful to partner church Otterbein UMC for inspiring their new SAC display.
Manchester UMC (Manchester, Missouri) has a uniquely talented and enthusiastic children’s choir, directed by Lori Borger. Every year, the choir of fourth and fifth graders, called "Music Makers," stages a musical and selects a cause to receive the love offering taken at the event. This year, Lori and her kids chose the Child Rescue Centre as beneficiaries of their musical, "Rescue in the Night."
Written by Tom Long and Alan Pote, "Rescue in the Night" is a musical retelling of the Biblical story of Daniel in the Lions' den. “The story of Daniel is one of courage and trust in God." Lori explained. "We made one of our themes this year about rising to our full potential, like Daniel did, without compromising… and also allowing others to rise to THEIR full potential, by standing up for friends who are being bullied, like Daniel was by the King’s advisors. We also rise by doing what we can to help ALL children – even those we don’t know, halfway around the world - rise to THEIR full potential. That’s what Helping Children Worldwide does every day – and we are honored to be able to support your work.”
While planning and practicing for the annual concert, Lori encourages her kids to shoot for the stars, while helping them to maintain reasonable expectations. “I always set what I believe is a realistic goal for the kids,” Lori told us, “as I want them to experience that feeling of success....and the excitement of exceeding their goal...so our goal was to fund a child's tuition for every child in our entire Children's Music program, which is 76 kids, or $3800. I'm happy to report that these kids touched hearts in a very powerful way.”
The kids blew that goal out of the water, and the offering collected at the three concerts held on March 3rd and 4th raised over $10,000 for the Child Rescue Centre. At the cast party, Borger shared the news. “Well, just as I predicted - excitement and joyful screaming ensued!” she shared.
Clearly, the musical was a smashing success, but Lori sees a much deeper purpose than simply showcasing the kids' awesome talent or raising funds. “Each time we are able to give children the experience of taking a personal role in lifting someone else up in a significant way, I can almost visibly see THEM rise as well… they sit a little taller; they understand that even as a child, they can collectively harness the powerful force of doing GOOD…and how GOOD that feels. I just love seeing the light in their eyes – and tears in some, too - when they realize that they have made the world a better, brighter place for someone.
"It has been the joy of my life to be able to do what I love: theater and music and children – and to let children experience the joy of lifting others up, and empower them to know that they can make the world a better place for someone else at any age, when we come together for a common good. AND, I love introducing them to just a small fraction of the amazing programs going on all over the world, like the Child Rescue Centre, that are dedicated to helping others….there are SO many ways to plug in and help our hurting world!"