Thursday, June 1, 2017

Where are the locking caps?!

Flossy came into casualty paralyzed.  She had been assaulted and the CT scan of her neck confirmed a severe dislocation of her spine that had resulted in a spinal cord injury.
Sixteen hours after we placed her in cervical traction, her spine had realigned.  We were then able to take her to the operating room to perform a spine fusion, which uses screws and rods to hold the spine together while it heals.  One of the big differences between practicing in Kenya as opposed to the US is the fact that I am keenly aware of my finite amount of resources here.  With every spine fusion I do I try to carefully discern what the minimum number of screws is that I can use and still provide the best care for my patient.  And I try to keep an accurate inventory of how many screws and other necessary implants I have left.  I'd decided I would use six screws for Flossy's case and then after surgery leave her in a neck brace while she recovered.  

Well, I hadn't done such a good job of keeping an accurate inventory.  Here I was in surgery, feeling good about the six screws I'd just put in, and about ready to finish the case and get on with my Saturday.  After you've placed your screws and put in the rods that connect those screws, you have to put in what are called locking caps, one for each screw, to keep the rods in place.  I knew I was running low on those, but for some reason I'd thought I had at least enough of them to finish this case; it was only six screws after all.  So you know I felt like an idiot when I opened the lid to the locking caps and saw only three sitting there.  I rummuged through the rest of the set, thinking surely they'd been misplaced, but I couldn't find any.  I had already begun to strategize how I could most effectively use those three caps when suddenly I remembered that Alisa had told me the day before that a newly arrived visitor to Tenwek had dropped off a package at our house with some supplies.  I had told some people back in the US of my locking cap shortage and was expecting some spine equipment to be arriving soon so I quickly unscrubbed from the case and ran home to see if this package had what I needed.  It was like Christmas morning when I tore the box open and sitting there in a Ziploc bag were over a dozen locking caps!  Still out of breath, I made the run back up to the hospital, scrubbed in, and finished Flossy's case.
Flossy's X-rays after surgery showing realignment of her spine, with the rods and screws holding things in place.
Dr. Al Rhoton was one of the most influential figures the world of neurosurgery has ever known; you'd be hard-pressed to find a neurosurgeon anywhere who doesn't know the significance of his efforts.  He used to say that if God had come to earth and had told him as a young man, "Al, today a boy is being born who is going to develop a brain tumor that will cause him to become deaf, then unable to walk, and ultimately this tumor will take his life.  However, if you go through 12 years of schooling, then 4 years of college, 4 years of medical school, 7 years of residency, sit through countless exams, sacrifice time with family and friends, at the end of all those grueling years you at last will become a neurosurgeon.  Yet all that time and studying will be not for the sake of saving the lives of thousands, but that of only this single boy.  Would the sacrifice be worth it?"  And Dr. Rhoton always said with conviction, "Of course it would."

Jesus tells a somewhat similar set of stories.  The first recalls a shepherd who had 100 sheep.  One day he discovered that one was lost so he left the 99 and went after the one until he found it.  And when he found it and returned home, he called his friends and neighbors, saying "Celebrate with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!"  The second story tells of a woman who had ten silver coins but lost one.  She lit a lamp and swept the whole house and searched carefully until she found it.  And when she'd found it, she called her friends and neighbors, saying "Celebrate with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!"

Neither of these stories likely resonates with you much.  I'm no shepherd, and shoot, if I'm sweeping my house and come across a coin, I'm likely to just add it to the pile and throw it in the trash.  Certainly I'm not shouting from the rooftop that I found it.  But I bet most of us can feel the emotion in the third story Jesus told.

There was a father who had two sons.  After what must have been years of tension with his father, the younger son had had enough and requested his half of the inheritance.  He figured he was better off on his own.  So he took his money and left to indulge himself, but quickly squandered everything he had.  A severe famine came to the land and the son hired himself out to feed a man's pigs their slop and soon found himself longing to eat with the pigs.  Jesus said, "But when he came to his senses, the son said, 'How many of my father's workers have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!  I will return to my father and say to him, 'I have wronged heaven and you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.  Make me like one of your hired workers."  So the son returned to his father, fully expecting a public reprimand at best, a door slammed in his face at worst.  But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him.  He ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.  And the father called together all his servants and held a feast, saying 'This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is now found.'

When I read this story and think about my relationship with my son Liam coming to the point where he walks out of my house in haste, disgusted with me, to go at life on his own, my stomach goes in knots.  What it would feel like to wonder if I'd ever see him again, if we'd ever speak.  And to think about him suffering alone in the world, realizing the effects of his decisions but doubting that he could come home, again makes me pang.  But how quickly I too would run out my front door at the first sight of his return.  No matter what he'd done, no matter what he'd said, I would want him to know that I loved him and forgave him. 

Of course in this story the father represents God.  And the way that father felt about his son is the way God feels about me, who has been that indulgent son, and who too often still tries to sneak out the back door.  And it's how he feels about you.  And it's how he feels about the people coming here to Tenwek in need, many of whom find themselve at a place in life where they are with the pigs so to speak.

Just like I dropped what I was doing, scrubbed out of my case, and went running home to search for a locking cap, so God pursues us.  And just like that father who went running to greet his repentant son, God eagerly awaits us to turn to Him.  Some people critique medical missions, fretting that it's not realevangelism, or suggesting that it's a waste of time and resources when there will always be countless people to be treated.  But like Dr. Rhoton, if all my studying, if all my training, if all my efforts here at Tenwek, no matter how many the years, were only for the sake of treating one person who might come to understand God's love for them and His desire to give them life to the fullest, my response would be the same..."Of course it was worth it."
Flossy on the day of her discharge.  It was nothing short of miraculous.  She was walking the halls without help, feeding herself, and waving;)
Work at the hospital continues to be fulfilling.  On March 14th, the nationwide doctors strike ended...after 100 days.  Fortunately, the hospital census and my work load has become more manageable as a result.  

And after she made us wait a few extra days, we finally welcomed another little girl into the world last week...Emery Laura Chepkemoi Copeland, born May 24th.  We will call her Emery, but our Kenyan friends are already lovingly calling her by her Kipsigis name, Chepkemoi.  I'm so proud of my superwoman wife.  Alisa walked up the hill to the hospital in labor, birthed a kid at 11:03pm, then walked back down the hill and was in our bed by 12:45am.  She and Emery are both doing well.  If only I could say the same for Nora who has been dealt the harsh reality that she's no longer the baby of the family.

Thanks to the many of you who support us in various ways, including those individuals and companies who so generously provide equipment and supplies for the hospital.  I hope Flossy's story is a tangible example of what a real difference it makes.


Monday, March 6, 2017

Panga attack

As one of the few hospitals still fully functioning in western Kenya, we are seeing more and more patients like John here at Tenwek.  As you may know, there has been a nationwide doctor's strike here in Kenya since December 5th of last year.  That means that for the last 13 weeks all government hospitals in the country have effectively been shut down with no doctors to care for their patients.  
John came in to casualty with his brain quite literally hanging out of his head. He'd been yet another victim of a panga (machete) attack.  In addition to the chop through the back of his head, he'd been hit higher above his ear and deep in his forehead, as well as having his finger nearly taken off.  We took him to the operating room where I amputated the exposed and contaminated brain, then patched the covering of the brain using tissue from his thigh.  Next to me were two general surgery residents washing out and closing his other scalp wounds while an orthopedic resident repaired his finger.
The strike has drastically changed the already busy workload here at Tenwek and the way I have to practice neurosurgery.  I'm seeing far more patients than I could ever treat...victims of assault or accidental trauma, those with brain tumors, or with spine infections, or babies with hydrocephalus. Patients that need an operation to save some aspect of their neurologic function, or even more, their life.  And that's to say nothing of the many with degenerative spine conditions causing them "only" pain, affecting their quality of life and often compromising their ability to work and provide for their family.  The latter have been destined to a long waiting list.  For the others I have had to resort to offering surgery only to those who I judge to be able to benefit most from my efforts.  And the ones I triage out I can't just send somewhere else.  There isn't a somewhere else for the vast majority of our patients who can't afford the prices of the few private practices still open in the country.  And that means I have to look a mother in the eyes and tell her I can't operate on her 7 year old son with a brain tumor because I'm estimating that his prognosis will be worse than the 14 year old girl in the bed next to him who came in with an intracranial hemorrhage from a vascular malformation, which if I remove will likely allow her to live an otherwise normal life.  Or telling every adult I suspect has a malignant brain tumor that I can't help them, like the 34 year old father of two I saw this week who may have his life extended by a few years with an operation.  
Two of my patients sharing a bed, a more common occurrence now during the strike.
The young man on the right is my most recent panga attack victim from last week.
When I reflect on the needs of so many hurting people and am at times tempted to give up, I'm reminded of Jesus, who made it his mission to serve others, even the "least of these", in the hope that they would come to know of God's love for them.  When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he answered and said "Love the Lord your God...and love your neighbor as yourself."  He told his followers that "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another."  The New Testament writer Paul went so far as to say, "The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love."

It's a privilege to serve alongside my Kenyan brothers and sisters here at Tenwek, where we are trying to live out these words by loving our neighbors as we would ourselves.  Often it means providing care to patients with little or no resources to offer the hospital in return.  Or working longer, busier hours and taking on additional responsibilites as the hospital capacity overflows.  It means keeping our doors open and continuing to serve when so many around us have chosen not to.
Our 5 little monkeys lined up on the Maasai Mara during a recent safari.  How cool is that?!
Our family is doing well.  For the last two months I've been taking Swahili classes in the mornings, then trying to cram a full days work into the afternoons.  Perhaps not the wisest timing on my part, but I'm really enjoying it and think it's important to learn the language so I can best connect to the people here.  If you haven't heard, we're expecting our sixth baby in May...our fifth girl.  Heaven help us.  

Thanks for your continued support.  Please know it means so much to us.


Sunday, January 22, 2017


I have a college degree in communications but I am a poor communicator.  Day to day life overtakes me and there is always an excuse not to write, call, text, or reply.  This is true regardless of which side of the world I am living.  New experiences have piled in my mind to tell you - our first Christmas season in Kenya,  a special visit to a village church, our first Kenyan birthday party, and more.

But today all I can write about is Mimi.

Will's grandmother, Charlotte Copeland, passed away on Thursday morning.  The news that Mimi had died came suddenly and unexpectedly.  We love her so much.  The distance between Kenya and Arkansas is always far but feels even greater as we try to grieve from miles away.

One of the last things she asked of me this summer before we moved was for a hand-written letter with news about the kids.  I never sent one.

These are my thoughts that I wish I had communicated to her had I known...

I remember being at your house one day and you were admiring my mothering saying "Hon, how do you do it all?" And I laughed and said, "Oh Mimi, but you've done it all too!" And you said, "You know, you just do what you have to do, don't you?"

Those words "you just do what you have to do" have come to my mind often.  

You just do what you have to do...

When I am weary, when I am lonely, when I am overwhelmed.

You just do what you have to do.

And I think about how that rings true in your life.  You have set a high standard of what it means to do what you have to do - of making the right choice day after day, of living faithfully and loving well.  

I love this about you.  You passed this on to your son, Billy, and he passed it on to Will.  These men carry these traits of you.  Now I get to reap the great benefits of your legacy.  

Your legacy of living faithfully and loving well.  

Our fourth baby, Charlotte, carries your name because we hope that she can follow in this same example that you have set.  You are a true reflection of Christ and that is the greatest hope we can have for her.

Thank you so much for that.

Charlotte and Charlotte
On Thursday night, our family sat down and talked about the many things we remember and love about her...

Liam looked forward to motorcycle rides to her house with Pops (Billy).
Hayden remembers having a special morning with Mimi, making macaroni and cheese and cookies, just the two of them.
Harper loved popsicles at her house and remembers Mimi teaching her how to clap to turn the lamp off and on in her hallway.
Charley loved playing tea party with Mimi and going upstairs to see her purses.
We all remember celebrating Mimi's 87th birthday and Nora's 1st birthday together this summer.
We all loved the cards and gifts she never forgot to send on birthdays, holidays and anniversaries. 
We all remember how she loved Pawpaw.
We all loved how thrilled she always was to see us and be with us.  
Birthday celebration this summer
My grandmother has dementia and was moved to a nursing home not long ago.  Mimi began visiting her there.  I loved her so much for that.  And this summer I told her thank you for taking the time to go see her even when my grandma doesn't know who she is.  And Mimi said, "Oh, it just brightens my day to see her!"  It brightens HER day to visit my aging grandma in the nursing home.  Mimi was a rare and bright light in this world. 

We honor your memory across the ocean, Mimi.  We praise God for you and the glory you brought Him.  May we serve others here in Kenya as you did in your life. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A boy named Gideon

Gideon is a 17 year old boy whose parents brought him to Tenwek in a coma.  I did a double take at his head CT when the resident came to tell me about showed the largest brain tumor I think I've ever seen! 
The tumor looked to be outside the brain, so while Gideon was unresponsive, I thought if we could remove it and take the pressure off his brain, perhaps he'd have a chance at some improvement.  We took him to the OR urgently that night and, as I feared, the tumor had developed an extensive vascular supply so that even as we made the incision and peeled down his scalp his skull was bleeding in countless places.  The hospital's only electric craniotomy drill had broken just a few days prior so we had the tedious task of removing his skull using a hand twist drill and manual saw.  I had planned to open the covering of the brain over the center of the tumor and begin removing pieces of it, but quickly realized the tumor was way too bloody for that tactic.  So instead I opened along the margins of the tumor in hopes of perhaps coming around it.  The neurosurgeons reading this know what happened next though.  The tumor was putting so much pressure on the brain, the minute the brain was exposed it began herniating toward us, begging to get away from the tumor.  I knew between the brain trying to squeeze out of the head and the tumor bleeding, we needed to move fast.  I've never done what I did next, and my mentors at Mayo would cringe had they been watching.  The plane between the tumor and the brain was actually pretty favorable so I literally ran my hand between the brain and the tumor all around its margins until I was able to remove the thing in one chunk.
Even later that night in the ICU Gideon began to open his eyes and over the course of the next week he made a remarkably full recovery.  Thankfully, and somewhat surprisingly, his tumor was a benign tumor called a meningioma, so I'm hopeful he's cured.

Gideon really endeared himself to me and the day he came back to clinic a month after surgery was a special day.  I believe God spared Gideon's life and I shared with him the following scripture from the book of Jeremiah.
"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord,
"plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future."

I believe that's true for Gideon and I believe it's true for my family here in Kenya.  
It’s hard to believe I'm finishing my seventh week of work here at Tenwek.  Certainly it has had its challenges and many days we still feel unsettled, but there has been something entirely fulfilling about serving the people here and being where we’re confident God has led us.

Work at the hospital has been plenty busy.  Just yesterday I gave a lecture to the residents, performed three operations while bouncing back and forth to clinic to see 31 patients, and had a ruptured aneurysm come to casualty (what we call the ER here), which I added to the already two cases scheduled for today. I have good help though.  The surgical residents here are great and interacting with them has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of my work.

Operating is almost always an adventure.  More days than not I feel out of my element.  Either I’m doing cases I’ve rarely (or never) done, or even in those cases I would otherwise be comfortable, I often don’t have some piece of equipment and am left needing to improvise.  I’ve found myself in the middle of many cases feeling way in over my head, being keenly aware of my own limitations as a surgeon, and asking God to intervene.  That is a humbling situation to be in and it’s teaching me a reliance on Him I’ve not previously allowed.

Thank you so much to the many of you who have supported us in various ways.  Please know your support makes a real difference for us and is so encouraging as we continue to settle in to our new home here in Kenya.


Saturday, November 5, 2016

Feet on the ground

I have been waiting for mental clarity to write but I better not wait any longer! It's hard to believe that 7 weeks have passed since we moved to Kenya!

Packed and ready to move - 2 parents, 5 kids and our life inside 24 pieces of luggage
These are words that I wrote shortly after we arrived at Tenwek Hospital:

Our feet are on the ground in Kenya! We left Little Rock, Arkansas on Tuesday, September 13th.  After 24 hours of travel, a 2 day stay in Nairobi and a 4 hour drive, we walked into our new home at Tenwek.

The journey went... ummmm.... smoothly?  God graciously delivered us from one point to the next.  However, I think of Jim Gaffigan's line when people ask him what it's like to have 4+ kids. "Imagine you're drowning... and someone hands you a baby."  This is also descriptive of traveling internationally with five kids.  Constant survival mode - Is everyone accounted for? Is a carseat optional for this toddler?  Are we supposed to be awake or asleep now? Can 7 people survive on five granola bars and a bag of jolly ranchers before the next stop?

I am so thankful for each person that prayed for us through our travel days and the challenging days of preparation before.  Many texts, calls and emails of love and prayer were sent our way from friends in the US and new friends in Kenya.  And at just the right times when I thought I couldn't do it!

I do not have enough words of gratitude for our families.  They were troopers and rallied together to get us off the ground in Little Rock.  Here are some traveling photos.
Pops helping us pack the trailor on the morning of our flight
Nora keeping an eye on the luggage
At the Little Rock Airport and so happy to be done with the packing part!
Checking it all in at the airport
Hard good-byes to grandparents
Will's mom and Harper Claire
Liam, Uncle Ellis and Hayden
Happy to be on the plane
Getting into the entertainment bags packed by family and friends

Thank you to the Cruce family for these airplane toys!
Landed in Nairobi
I have a cousin, Sarah Nicholson, that lives in Malindi, Kenya.  I have not communicated well with her since she moved to Kenya 5 years ago, and I did not communicate well with her as we prepared to move ourselves to the same country!  But when we walked out of the airport in Nairobi, her husband Chris was standing there waiting for us!! We couldn't believe it!!  To step off of a plane at night in a new country with 24 pieces of luggage after 24 hours of travel, and to see a familiar face - it was like seeing an angel sent from God.  This sounds dramatic, but it's true!  We hadn't even told Chris or Sarah our travel details, but he had found out for himself and hopped on a flight from Malindi to Nairobi to meet us.  He helped us get our luggage out of the airport and to the Samaritan's Purse vehicle that was waiting for us.  And then while our family drove with our SP driver to the guesthouse where we were staying for the night, Chris hopped a taxi, picked up pizza from Domino's and met us back at the guesthouse.  THEN he said, if your kids have trouble sleeping tonight, just come get me and I'll help you out so you can get some sleep.  This guy!!  This kind of unexpected help and kindness when we were worn out and vulnerable was an amazing gift.  And Sarah flew in the next day to spend some time with us in Nairobi before we drove on to Tenwek on Friday.  We are so so grateful for their support and encouragement.
Chris and Will outside of the Nairobi airport
Eating a nice lunch in Nairobi hosted by Samaritan's Purse staff.  A Brazilian steak house!
Liam watching a pig being butchered outside of the restaurant
Doing a big grocery run at the Nakumat (sort of like Wal-Mart but not) in Nairobi with Hayden and Beth White
One of the long-term missionaries from Tenwek, Beth White, met us in Nairobi to help orient us.  She ran around with us to tour the Samaritan's Purse headquarters, arrange for new cell phone service, and do a giant grocery run to stock up on basics before leaving the city.  She and her family have lived in Kenya for 19 years and she is a wealth of wisdom.  She and her husband Russ have been assigned to us as mentors and we are so glad to have their support and guidance.  Beth has a quiet confidence and steady trust in God.  I have found her to be a good listener and trustworthy.  She has already become a friend!
Sarah helping with the big grocery run
Jet lag
Saying goodbye to Chris and Sarah and looking forward to more time together
View of the Rift Valley as we drove from Nairobi to Tenwek
Will and the kids with Tony, our driver from Samaritan's Purse.  Tony drove us carefully through the chaotic traffic and bumpy, pitted roads and delivered us safely to Tenwek.
Our new home
We were greeted at our new home by Dan and Heather Galat.  This is the house Dan and Heather lived in and grew their family in for 7 years.  This summer they unexpectedly needed to move to Kijabe, Kenya for the foreseeable future and so we will be living in their home in their absence.  They lived many memories here and put lots of love and work into this home.  It really is a beautiful house.  They were there to pass it on from their family to ours.  It was an emotional hand-off and we are so grateful for the time they spent orienting us to the house and the start of life in Kenya.

Nora walking with Sheila, our new house helper
Now our feet are on the ground at Tenwek Hospital!  As I stumble through these first days and weeks, I am a mixed bag of emotions...

So grateful to finally be here but missing the family we left behind.

So excited to be in our new home right next to the hospital but not feeling at home yet in these new walls.

Struck by the beauty of the country around me but feeling awkward in my own skin as I walk from one place to another.

Surrounded by a kind and welcoming team of missionaries but feeling largely unknown.

The kids have all had highs and lows but are overall positive and happy to be here.  They are making fast friends with the other missionary kids and easing their way into the world of homeschooling - that's another post for another day.
Harper and Charley playing with flower pods in the yard
A little homeschooling action
I find myself grasping for familiarity...

smelling all of my clothes and towels that still smell like detergent from home

taking an extra minute to hold and snuggle Nora before bed

looking at my mother's handwriting from a note in the front of my journal

Today after a meal of rice, beans and chapati (a Kenyan flat bread), Charley said, "Mom, can you make macaroni and popcorn and pizza?" I think she is looking for familiarity too.

This is ringing in my ears now... a song I used to sing as a kid.  I haven't sung this song in so many years and now it is always in my mind and a song I've begun singing at bedtime to the kids.  It's from a chapter in the book of Lamentations.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases
His mercies never come to an end
They are new every morning
Great is your faithfulness
The Lord is my portion says my soul
Therefore I will hope in Him

God, may I be grounded in you as the smell of my detergent from home fades.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Love gift

It's here.  The end of our Minnesota years.  The end of residency.  The end of a beautiful chapter.  I began packing my boxes today!  All day I have asked myself "donate or keep?"
Donate or keep?
(Nora, 10 months)
Seven years ago I moved to Rochester, Minnesota and started this blog.  Blogging for me has been sporadic at best but today is a day to write.

It is not quick or easy to pull yourself up from a place that you feel deeply rooted.  Good-bye is gradual and hard.  I began my good-byes several weeks ago when I gave my going-away talk (or love gift) to Side By Side, my medical wives Bible study.  I shared what God has done in my life during my time in Rochester.  

This is my love gift:

Great Expectations

You Might Live in Minnesota  if…. (from Twin Cities Daily Planet)

You have worn shorts and a parka at the same time

Down south to you means Iowa

You have ever refused to buy something because it’s “too spendy”

You find 0 degrees F “a little chilly”

Your local Dairy Queen is closed from November through March

Someone in a store offers you assistance, and they don’t work there

The word, “Vacation” means going up north past Brainerd for the weekend

You can drive 65 mph through 2 feet of snow during a raging blizzard, without flinching

You see people wearing hunting clothes at social events

You design your kid’s Halloween costume to fit over a snowsuit

Seven years ago I moved from Arkansas to Rochester and I didn’t understand any of those things.  I had never known a Minnesotan, never seen a snow blower, never used the term "hot dish" and never heard of Side By Side.  But I had great expectations and ideas of what I was getting into.  I was prepared for the reality that I would be stranded on the side of the road in a snowstorm with no mom, dad or husband to call.  I would have to sustain my children on breast milk alone and make a flag with my red underwear and car antenna to wave until a friendly native came to our rescue.  I looked forward to darling furry hats and awesome winter boots and hoped for a new crop of super awesome quirky northern friends. 

Will was beginning his 7-year residency in neurosurgery.  And moving to Minnesota with our two babies, two cats and a dog was the biggest and bravest thing that we had ever done as a married couple.  He had just finished medical school at the University of Arkansas and we had a 2 year old and a four month old.  We left everything familiar in Little Rock – our home, our church, both of our families and our friends.  That’s the same story for many of you. 

Will and I grew up together in Little Rock, Arkansas and dated through high school.  We were both raised in Christian homes and had been largely sheltered in a Bible bubble most of our lives.  My daddy was a conservative preacher and made church-life the highest priority in our family. 

We got married our junior year of college and we were babies.  As a baby married person I had lots of expectations.  I expected that we would be the cool married couple of our college friends, I expected lots of sex, I expected that Will would be a nerdy doctor, I expected he would make good money, I expected that we would have lots of babies, I expected to take those babies on a blowout trip to Disney World after residency. 

Within the first month of moving to Rochester we attended a neurosurgery department dinner and one of the resident wives, Lori Daugherty, gave me a card with information about this Bible study for doctor’s wives.  Yes, SO in, no hesitation.  I was on a hunt for friends and I felt like this could be the beginning. 

And it truly was.  My first friends were in the summer study I attended that year.  Those first years require so much help and encouragement as you gain your bearings in a new place.  Thank you so much to Cari Ekbom, Steph Schmitt and Mary Beth Hoover for taking the time to lead and encourage us that year. 

I’ll never forget filling out the paper work for Side By Side and putting down 2016 as my graduating year.  I had the latest graduation date of all the newcomers that year and I couldn’t fully wrap my head around the 7 years that we were going to spend in Minnesota.  We had purchased our first house a few months before and also purchased a mini-van.  In those first few months I was thinking, what in the world is happening?  All of this is so very grown-up and adult.  I was a mother of two people, with a mortgage and a mini-van living in Minnesota.  I thought I had just graduated from college.  All of my senses were completely confused.  And then it snowed in October.  It took me a good two winters to get my feet under me.  It was truly a culture-shock experience. 

Now I want to devote a portion of my love gift to Robin Morgenthaler.  What an instrumental part you have been to my time here.  In February of my first year here Robin called me and asked me to meet her for coffee.  I did not know her but I said ok.  She invited me to be a part of the Side By Side Executive Board as the Southern Regional Director.  They needed someone from the south to represent the south.  I was from the south and the pickins’ up here are slim when it comes to southern girls so I ended up with the job.  Truthfully, I wasn’t sure I was the right person for the job, and I’m still not sure I’m the right person for the job.  I felt small and ill-equipped in comparison to the leaders I was standing by – Robin, Heidi Sems, and Deb Zeldenrust at the time. But Robin, you have pushed me and encouraged me year after year and I am so grateful for your friendship.

God has used Side By Side to bring about major change in my life.  I mean He really turned things upside down. And I want to try to share briefly how that happened…

During my fourth year here, my small group was studying Radical by David Platt.  I wasn’t really liking the book.  The author was kind of in my face and it bugged me.  I had just had my fourth baby and I just didn’t want to think as hard as he was asking me to think.  We were studying in the book of Matthew chapter 19 where a rich man comes to Jesus and says I’ve done all these things right in my life, now what must I do to have eternal life? and Jesus says sell everything you have and follow me.  Our group was discussing this passage and David Platt’s book was challenging us to think about what it really means to use our money to honor God.  And it was a difficult discussion to have because money is a tricky and uncomfortable thing to talk about. 

I had read this part of Matthew before but that day it was like I was seeing it with new eyes.  The Spirit struck me with the reality of how much I was like the rich man – willing to do all the churchy things but still remaining in control of my own life, blinded by my pride, looking good on the outside but not truly following the footsteps of Jesus.  Without actually saying it, I was saying look God, I go to church every week, look God I went on mission trips in college, look God I was a virgin when I got married, look God I don’t drink or swear, look God I read the Bible every day.  I’m doing all these Christian things! What more could you want from me? Why do I feel like I always come up short? I was ashamed and repulsed by the idea of being like the rich man. I was so much like him and so little like Jesus. My life centered around me.  Enough, I thought.

Later that year Robin invited me to the Devoted Hearts women’s conference hosted here at Autumn Ridge.  Jen Hatmaker spoke and it rocked my world.  She talked about the wealth we live in compared to 98% of the rest of the world.  And as a resident, I needed to be reminded that I had so much.  It’s easy to get stuck on what I don’t have.  And Jen’s words that stuck in my head were “do something”. Quit waiting around for your “calling” and do something.  In other words, start truly following Jesus now.  Love the way he loves.  Care about what he cares about. 

Will and I had already been talking about what would be the next move for us after residency.  We were both hoping to go somewhere warmer and closer to family. But all of this stuff that was stirring inside my head and heart I was dumping on Will and it began to shift our thinking about what was next.  The option of going overseas to a mission hospital came up.  I can only explain it by the Holy Spirit’s work in my heart and leading me to the point of saying, “God, whatever you ask, I’m in. Follow you? Seek you first? Love you with all my heart, soul, mind and strength? Yes absolutely.  I’m all in.”

And there was urgency about it.  So immediately after the Devoted Hearts conference the opportunity came up to start a new church in downtown Rochester called the Gathering.  We had attended Calvary Evangelical Free Church for four years and they needed a team of people to plant this church so we jumped in wondering what in the world we were doing.  But God has moved and worked in ways there I could never have planned.

So in the Spring of  2014 Will went to Tenwek hospital in Kenya and God opened his eyes to the opportunity there and the possibility of our family moving there.  He came home from that trip so excited to share with me what he had learned and experienced – the need for a neurosurgeon there, the opportunities to serve, the importance of the work that was being done at Tenwek.  At some point a switch flipped and Will and I both realized that God was asking us to serve him in medical missions.  He was asking us, “Are you willing? Are you willing?” Not are you good enough, not are you tough enough, not are you spiritual enough but are you willing.

We went to Tenwek as a family this past spring.  It was a whirlwind experience with our family of six, and it affirmed that that indeed was our next step after residency.  I think I was more gung ho about moving there before I ever visited.  Now that I know what to expect I’m thinking oh my goodness… are you sure God?  I can think of a lot of other people that would be better at this than me.  Homeschooling makes me want to cuss.  My sister is a homeschooling, breadbaking kind of person.  Send her God!  But truthfully all these doubts come from my own insecurities.  The God that is leading me is unwavering.  He continues to ask me, “are you willing?” and the simple answer is yes, I am willing.  I am willing.

So now I see that moving to Minnesota was all in preparation for what was to come. We are getting ready to move again – somewhere warmer but definitely not closer to home.  Our family has grown from 4 to 7 while in Rochester.  We have Liam who’s 8, Hayden is 6, Harper 4, Charley 3 and Nora 5 months.  In the summer we will all move to Tenwek Hospital in a town in Kenya called Bomet.  We will be part of the 2-year post-residency program with Samaritan’s Purse.   I still can’t believe that I am saying these words.  I have said before that I would never live overseas.  And I have also said that I would never homeschool.  The little list of expectations I moved here with 7 years ago has been revamped.   I still think that someday we will take that trip to Disney World but for now God has set us on a new path that we couldn’t have dreamed up for ourselves.

There are so many people here that I love dearly.  You have seen me through this whole story and loved me through it.  You have walked with me through a long list of highs and lows – my father being diagnosed with cancer, the birth of 3 of my babies, the loss of one baby and post-partum depression.  You have cooked me meals, written me notes, shoveled my driveway, jumped my car, hosted my showers, prayed for me, held me accountable, babysat my kids and so much more.  You know I’m a hot mess much of the time and that I am an unlikely missionary but I have received nothing but encouragement and support from you.  I am extending a formal invitation to you to come visit me in Kenya.  My door is always open.