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Faith and service: Dillsburg doctors make a difference in the African bush"

Carolyn Kimmel
First Prize - $10,000

Carolyn Kimmel began her writing career at the York Dispatch/York Sunday News in York, PA, where she covered everything from cops and politics to social issues and agriculture. She wrote extensively on the issue of teen pregnancy, which earned her several writing awards including the G. Richard Dew Award for Journalistic Service, given by the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers Association, and a National Headliner Award. In 2000, she launched her freelance career, which has included writing for national and regional magazines and newspapers, colleges and various ministries. She also wrote two books on the first missionaries and early history of Brethren in Christ World Missions. She currently writes health news for the Harrisburg Patriot-News/PennLive in Harrisburg, PA and is writing a biography on the inspiring life of medical missionary doctor Alvan Thuma, the father of one of the doctors featured in the story for which she won the Amy Award. Carolyn, a graduate of Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., is happiest when her writing can glorify God. She lives in Dillsburg, PA with her husband, Mark, and three daughters.


 

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon at Dr. John Spurrier’s house when he got a call from the hospital. A child had a peanut stuck up her nose. Could Dr. Spurrier come over?

Grabbing a paperclip from his table, the doctor from Dillsburg sauntered across the dirt road and into the one-story Macha Mission Hospital, Zambia, where he headed for the pediatric ward and found the distraught child and mother.

“Hold her still for me,” he said and, after looping one end of the paperclip, inserted it into the child’s nose and pulled out a perfectly oval peanut, no doubt shelled by the child’s older sibling earlier in the day.

“Works every time – the best thing there is for removing a foreign object from the nose,” Spurrier said with a smile and told the relieved mother, “She can go home.”

Peanut extraction is fairly common in this community, where the nuts grow bountifully and offer an important source of protein for an often malnourished people.

This procedure was easy; others are not. Sometimes, the night before an unfamiliar surgery, Spurrier checks his medical books to get a quick primer. Sound incredible? If he doesn’t do the surgery, no one else will – so he might as well try.

Not far down the dusty, washboard road from Macha Hospital, Dr. Phil Thuma, another doctor from Dillsburg, does groundbreaking research on mosquitoes and malaria.

The two doctors began working at Macha Mission Hospital in the mid-1970s as missionaries for the Grantham-based Brethren in Christ Church and have worked there intermittently ever since. They provide medical care to a catchment area of about 160,000 people, many of whom walk, bike or take an ox cart across miles of African bush to seek treatment.

“Medicine here is interesting and challenging, but more than that, I am really needed here,” said Spurrier, formerly an emergency room doctor at Holy Spirit Hospital in Camp Hill.

One evening, Spurrier came home nearly 12 hours and 22 surgical procedures after leaving the house. Though certainly tired, he smiled. It had been a satisfying day, like so many of his days practicing medicine in primitive, short-staffed conditions far inferior to where he could practice in the United States. If he hadn’t set that arm, amputated that leg, drained that cyst, resected that bowel, these people may have died.

If he was lucky, he could end the day with a hot shower – if the water came on and the electricity didn’t go off so that the water heater he rigged up in the shower would work.

The Spurriers have running water for only two or three hours in the evening. Every night when the pipes whistle and groan, signaling the water’s appearance, Esther Spurrier, John’s wife, begins the laborious task of gathering water in barrels for the next 24 hours.

“Even the uncertainty of our water feels like a blessing when I consider so many African women who have to gather water and carry it back to their village on their heads,” she said. “Water is very heavy!”

Africa is full of wondrous sights – elephants lumbering along the banks of the Zambezi River, Victoria Falls spilling over an impossibly wide expanse of cliff, a nighttime sky pierced with bright white stars – but it also has its share of sobering sights.

An abundance of postage stamp-sized homes with thatched roofs and scant furnishings dot the African bush. There is great poverty, dirty water, deadly disease.

In the three decades since they arrived, the two Dillsburg doctors have worked hard to make a large dent in two of Africa’s most serious health problems – malaria and HIV transmission.

Using an innovative “test and treat” approach, the doctors have been able to identify people who test positive for these maladies and treat them before they have symptoms in order to curb transmission to others.

For HIV-infected people, that means starting antiretroviral medications sooner. Although the drugs are not a cure, if taken correctly, the virus can’t be found in the blood five months later.

Mother-to-child transmission of HIV in the Macha area has decreased dramatically, with HIV in newborns down from almost 15 percent in 2002 to 7.2 percent in 2012, Spurrier, 65, said. The drugs also curb transmission of HIV from an infected partner to an uninfected partner.

Cases of malaria – once the No. 1 killer at Macha– have dropped by 98 percent, with only one or two deaths a year, said Thuma, 63, who used to see two or three children die daily from malaria.

Such widespread testing was successful, the doctors said, because their longtime presence in the community earned them an important thing: Trust.

Thuma and Spurrieraren’t just white-coated professionals who see patients; they are community members who – with their wives – live and go to church alongside the local Zambians, speak their tribal Tonga language and forge personal friendships.

Thuma’s roots go down deep into the African soil. He was 4 years old when his father, Dr. AlvanThuma arrived in Macha in 1954 as a missionary doctor – the first and only doctor in a 40-mile radius. The elder Thuma drew up plans for the Macha Mission Hospital and, after seeing patients in the morning, worked alongside the local Zambians, firing bricks to build the hospital that would bring them good medical care.

Now, years later, Phil Thuma is most gratified that the Macha Research Trust he founded offers steady work to nearly 70 local Zambians who might otherwise be struggling to make a living from subsistence farming.

The research trust, in partnership with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg Public School of Health, operates a molecular biology lab where some stunning discoveries have been made. In 2007, they were the first to discover that malaria could be detected from saliva rather than just blood.

“A lot of people predicted we couldn’t run a lab like this out in the bush, 40 miles from the nearest town, but I’m stubborn enough that I love to prove people wrong,” said Thuma, who also does research on HIV  and tuberculosis. 

Although their work has attracted international attention, the doctors say their greatest joy comes in serving God through serving the people of Macha.

“God put the children of Africa on my heart. I feel responsible to see that kids in Africa, particularly Macha, have a chance to grow up, regardless of measles, malaria or HIV,” said Thuma, who formerly worked as a pediatrician at Hershey Medical Center and volunteers in pediatrics at Macha Mission Hospital.

His wife, Elaine, who grew up in Dillsburg with her parents Walter and Thelma Nell, became a registered nurse but saw her most important work as supporting and encouraging her husband.

“I never imagined myself, a girl from the small town of Dillsburg, visiting anywhere in Africa – let alone living there,” she said. “We often quote Psalm 115:1 as our theme song; ‘Not to us, Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.’”

When people ask why they serve, It’s easy for them to quote the words of Matthew 25:40 – “Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” – as the impetus for their work.

However, they say, what people may not realize is that in blessing others, there is great blessing.

“People are so grateful for whatever we can do. They give us chickens and peanuts and name their kids after us.’” John Spurrier said. “It’s so gratifying to look around and be able to say, ‘People’s lives were changed here because of what I did.’”

 “The relationships and friendships we have built with people in the community and the larger church have nourished and encouraged us,” Esther Spurrier added. “Some of these people we have lived and worked with now for decades, and the love runs deep and strong.”

Unfortunately, the doctors said, there is no one standing in line to take their place. Doctors come for short-term work, but none has committed to staying. Spurrier is currently the only Brethren in Christ missionary doctor engaged in AIDS work.

A person doesn’t need to be perfect – or even be an evangelist – to be a missionary, the doctors said.

 “Our philosophy of missions is that God gifts people in the Kingdom of God in different ways,” Spurrier said. “We have a holistic view – that God is interested in our minds and our bodies. We think good research and making people well makes God happy as much as preaching to them about Jesus.”

The doctors wish that they could convince other American doctors that practicing medicine in Africa offers a richness not found in money or material things.

 “To see a 1-year-old child go from almost dead with malnutrition and tuberculosis to a smiling, healthy child within a year; you couldn’t pay me enough to see that happiness,” Phil Thuma said.

 

(Dillsburg resident Carolyn Kimmel traveled to Africa recently to work on a biography of Alvan Thuma, a missionary doctor who lived and worked in a remote area of the African bush in the mid-1950s.)

 

Published in The Dillsburg Banner, October 24, 2013 (Dillsburg, PA)

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