by Richar Hart

By Richard Hart, February 28, 2014

Dr. Richard Hart, president of Loma Linda University, originally shared this story in the February 2014 edition of his monthly newsletter, Notes from the President. It is reprinted here with permission. –The Editors

Living our mission

We had spent the night in a Lutheran mission guesthouse in the capital city of Ndjamena. Now we were loading into two rigs for an eight-hour ride south to Bere Adventist Hospital, a name that has become known to many. After the dry and sparse camel country of central Tchad (Chad), we slowed through the potholes and detours of the southern goat and sheep country. Our crowded seats became more and more uncomfortable as my mind went back to my first visit to Bere, some 12 years before. It was called Bere Health Center back then, and despite my many years of visiting facilities like this at the ends of the world’s roads, I still remember my discouragement at the first sight of the worn-out buildings, broken beds, dirty surroundings, and desperate patients.

Caption: Tchadian countrysideWhy do we do this, I wondered? Does God really expect His children to serve in such difficult settings? Could we even find a doctor who would work here? How would we support him or her? Is it safe? Do the people and government even want us? Those are all valid questions, ones we cannot and should not ignore.

Through the first half of the 1900s, the Adventist church started an average of two new mission hospitals a year in developing countries, mostly by Loma Linda graduates. Our graduates were called—driven, really—to do this. It was one of those primal urges—there was no river too deep nor hurdle too high to keep them from taking up this challenge. SO THEY WENT—TO EVERY CORNER OF THE WORLD.

But that was then and this is now! Do we still have that type of graduate? Is the need still justified? The issues are surely different in today’s world. Really? We still have more than half the world’s population surviving on no or minimal access to health care. Life expectancy at birth is under 50 years in many countries, with people dying from preventable diseases—millions alone from the big three infections of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.

It was only because of the confidence I had in Loma Linda and its graduates that I was even in Tchad. Experience had taught me that they would still go. Not only were they willing, you could not hold them back. One of those intrepid young physicians was just across the border in Cameroon during my first visit, held up by some immigration irregularity. James Appel finally made it to Bere, and many of you know the story of how he started with a solitary commitment and amazing courage. James gradually grew Bere Adventist Hospital into one of the busiest hospitals in the country. It was here he fell in love with a Danish nurse volunteer, Sarah, and their combined commitment to serve in Tchad has been an inspiration to many.

After some six years at Bere, James and Sarah indicated they wanted to pioneer another institution, take on another challenge. That raised two fundamental questions—could we support another hospital in Tchad? And who in the world would carry on at Bere? Though the hospital was now full, with a reputation that reached across national borders, it was still isolated, desperately hot much of the year, with intermittent power and non-potable water. My confidence in our grads was confirmed once again when another young couple stepped forward and said “Here we are, send us.” Olen and Danae Netteburg had met at Loma Linda, fell in love during their latter years here, married, and went into their residencies—he in emergency medicine, and she in obstetrics/gynecology. Now they were looking for their own challenge, their own destiny. I encouraged them to visit Bere to make sure. The visit didn’t shake them and plans were made to move to Bere about three years ago. Meanwhile James and Sarah prepared to start a new ambulatory surgery center in Moundou, the economic capital of Tchad, but a city with limited health care and little church presence.

As the workload expanded at Bere, Danae invited her dad, Rollin Bland—another LLU School of Medicine alumnus—to join them. Rollin and his wife, Dolores, had worked years before in Nigeria, so they knew some of what they were getting into. These three physicians, Olen, Danae, and Rollin, along with their growing support staff, have continued to grow Bere’s reputation. And this past year, a generous donor added more than 20 new preformed buildings to serve as staff homes, guest rooms, classrooms, operating rooms, and delivery suites, etc. The capacity of Bere Adventist Hospital is now taking a giant leap forward to meet the growing needs of southern Tchad.

Our recent visit in late January was to hold board meetings for Adventist Health International–Tchad, dedicate the growing facility at Moundou, lay plans for the future of both institutions, and encourage our team on the ground. As usually happens, a successful hospital has added collateral programs. Rural health education programs are underway, led by LLU School of Public Health alumni. Gary and Wendy Roberts moved to Bere after James and Sarah were established and started a church planting and Bible training program. Gary brought his Cessna 172, built a hanger and airstrip, and now covers a wide swath of central Africa with his ministry. Both a primary and a secondary school are now also thriving at Bere—still basic by most standards, but providing daily Christian education for more than 600 students. It was my privilege to preach in the Bere church, where the benches are crowded, the youth are active, and God is glorified.

Unspeakable tragedies

But great successes are often accompanied by great sacrifice and pain. And Bere is no exception. Caleb Roberts died from malaria at age 4, and then two years ago, Adam Appel, one of James and Sarah’s twins, also died of malaria. Since then we have also lost Minnie Pardillo, a volunteer social worker from the Philippines. These great tragedies tear at the heart, making one question everything about serving abroad. It makes one angry at malaria, that great killer of so many even today. One also gets lost in the “what if?” questions.

It is with profound respect that we recognize what those simple graves in Bere mean, not only to their own families, but also to all of us. While death lingers so close in places like Bere for the local people, somehow it shouldn’t touch us. But it did. All of us. So while Wendy and Gary, and James and Sarah, carry on in Tchad, occasionally blinking back tears, we all must carry the burden of the world’s suffering. The needs have not gone away. The gospel call is as alive and urgent today as it was back then. And God doesn’t say to only go where it is safe. I imagine the Apostle Paul had trouble getting travel insurance for his voyages so long ago.

Our Adventist Health Interational–Tchad board meetings went well. Plans are being made to strengthen each institution and lay bold plans for the future. Another LLU School of Medicine grad, Scott Gardner, has come to take over the Moundou Adventist Surgery Center. Along with his wife, Bekki, they are stepping into James and Sarah’s shoes, while the Appels have set their hearts on yet another new site, far to the northeast of Tchad, where Islam is prevailing and the Darfur refugees from Sudan seek safety. James has been invited by a prominent Muslim family to start a new health care facility there at a place called Abougoudam, a name not found on any map!

So is rural Tchad worth the energy and time of five Loma Linda physicians? Have they found meaning in what they do? I can assure you that they don’t question their own involvement. They have chosen to be there, chosen to serve in this way. And the steady stream of other Loma Linda students and graduates who pass through Bere, and now Moundou, leave with a profound respect for their example of selfless service. Join me in holding up these families in our prayers.

Cordially yours,

Richard Hart