Friday, November 29, 2013

God's Grace

Many of you have been following the story of a 5 year-old Togolese girl named Grace either through this blog or perhaps facebook. I thought I'd take the time to expand on that story.

I first met Grace just a few months after I arrived in Togo.  Her father Komi, who helped out in our lab at HBB, brought her in one day looking very tired, sweaty, and weak.  Her heart was beating at 220 times a minute! (normal for her age would be around 80)  When the heart beats this fast, it actually doesn't have any time to fill up with blood and is essentially useless.  I knew she was suffering from SVT (Supraventricular Tachycardia)--a problem with the electrical system of the heart.  There are 3 treatments for this condition: a medication called Adenosine, a Vagal maneuver (ice pressed to the face or bearing down like you are going #2!), or shocking the heart.  I knew we had some Adenosine but it was expired.  I went to the doctor's office to get it and had them put an icepack on her face while waiting.  After about 5 doses of Adenosine and NO sign of the medication changing the rhythm in the least we were running out of options.  While debating whether to shock her heart, she had a seizure.  While the seizure wasn't good news, it actually put her heart into a normal rhythm.  After about 30 minutes she woke up smiling and giggled a bit and wanted to see her brother, Elizae.

After everything was calm, I flipped through her very thick medical chart and noticed that Grace had been diagnosed with this condition several years before, along with another structural heart problem.  An heart echo done years before showed that she had an open PDA, which is a vessel that is open in-utero so that blood can bypass the lungs (since the lungs are filled with fluid and don't "breathe"like normal).  After being born, this vessel closes.....or at least, is supposed to!

Grace went home after 2 days in the hospital and some treatment against malaria.  We increased the medication she had to take every day at home that tries to keep her heart from beating too fast.  The thoughts about exploring possible surgery in the US crossed my mind, but I wasn't ready to further explore things as I was still a novice in the Togo medical world.  I knew that I was dealing with a very special little girl, as I had never seen a child so filled with spontaneous joy.  There was no doubt that she carried with her the joy of the Lord everywhere she went.

A few months later she came in again.  Same symptoms, same worried look on her families faces.  After proving once again that Adenosine and ice packs weren't changing a thing, we shocked her heart. Immediately she opened her eyes wide and giggled, then reached out for her brother.  I didn't need to look at the monitor to know her heart was beating well again.

A few months passed and other admissions for her came.  Each time she also had malaria, which is rampant here in Togo, and likely served as a trigger for her SVT.  Each time we either shocked her heart back into rhythm or she would end up vomiting or seizing--none of which were long-term solutions!! Although I had been in contact concerning Grace's on-going care with my kind former colleagues at Kosair Children's Hospital, plans for searching out US surgical options were still put on hold as another employee's daughter was unexpectedly diagnosed with a Brain Tumor that needed an emergent operation.  (see blog posts "Berna part 1 and 2")  Thankfully through the experience with Bernadette, we make contact with an US based charitable organization called Healing the Children.  HTC helps find and facilitate finding surgical options for sick children all over the world (

Near the beginning of 2013, we started more actively trying to find out our options for getting Grace overseas.  Even with the help of HTC, we kept running into roadblocks as many US hospitals are not taking as many surgical charity cases due to budgetary cutbacks.  Also, due to Grace's problem not only with structure, but the electricity component of her heart, her surgery required a special electrophysiology lab.  Through some contacts at Kosair we were able to find a willing and capable surgeon in India.  The cost of the surgery was still going to be around $8000 which I knew was VERY CHEAP in comparison to what actual cost was, but also a lot of money for both us at HBB and for the folks at HTC.  I also just didn't feel like that's where she was supposed to go, so we waited.

I knew the longer we waited, the more danger she was in. Her heart already showed changes of beating too fast on a daily basis; even on medications her heart rate was around 120.  Our friends at healing the children had some leads.  My home hospital Kosair was a possibility but had already committed to taking a young child from Pakistan.  They said if things fell through though, the might take Grace.  Of course, I couldn't pray for the Pakistani child's case to "fall through"as I was sure he needed help just as much as Grace did.  So we waited.

Meanwhile, Dr. Ed Fitzgerald, an adult cardio-thorasic surgeon from Indianapolis started advocated for Grace.  Dr. Ed has done an incredible amount of work to help us here at HBB, including frequent visits to come and serve here (even with C-sections!  How many CV surgeons can say they know how to do C-sections!)  With Dr. Ed's connections he started making phone calls all over the country.  We got word that a surgeon Texas Children's was willing to help us out, but it needed approval from the board.  I told Grace's dad that we were getting close and we needed to start getting identity papers for Grace.  (In Togo, you can't get a card that shows you are a citizen without going through some major paperwork and paying fees.  Only after you have that card can you start the passport process).

Komi, Grace's dad, working in our lab
 While waiting for word from Texas we got a call that said Grace's dad had a cardiac arrest in a classroom at the hospital.  Komi had been accepted into our training program to become a lab tech, and during morning devotions, he fell to the ground unconscious.  After hours of resuscitation Komi was still unconscious but his heart was beating.  As a hospital with no ventilator or bypass abilities, the changes that Komi was going to survive the night were slim to none.  But after 2 days, and in the early morning hours, Komi woke up, prayed aloud, and then said, "Where am I?"  After a week in the hospital the doctors felt that he had some sort of baseline arrhythmia (faulty electricity in his heart) and would need an internal defibrillator, which was not possible at HBB.  And although Komi's brain went without oxygen for likely at least 15 minutes, after about 2 weeks he was back in class.

Our friend Dr Ed went to work on trying to find hospitals that would take Grace and Komi!!  The possibility of Texas Children's was moving forward and we had some hopeful leads on Komi's chances as well.  Sadly, about 4 weeks later, Komi had another cardiac arrest while playing with his children and died a few hours after arriving at HBB.  The devastation overwhelmed everyone at the hospital as we all remained in a state of shock.  How could this happen to a joyful, Christ-serving, healthy young husband and father?  What was there to say to his young 29 year old wife and 2 young kids?  I pleaded with the Lord to open a door for Grace, so that her mom wouldn't have to bury another family member.

The e-mail came 3 days after Komi died.  Dr. Ed sent word that Riley Children's Hospital in his hometown of Indianapolis had accepted Grace and surgery would be on Dec 10th!!!!  PRAISE GOD!  The date of surgery was firm and couldn't be moved.  I knew we had A TON to get done, including passports and visas in only a month's time.  But while this news was a huge blessing, how could I ask Grace's mom to let her leave for the US, to get a surgery on her heart, when she hadn't yet buried her husband?  Grace's surgery wouldn't require opening her chest, or a long stay in the hospital, but it isn't without risk.  At Komi's funeral I watched as a family friend carried Grace on her back.  It was the only time in 2 years I had ever seen Grace without an infectious smile and laugh.  I knew her only chance was to go.

Grace with her mom and beloved brother, Elizae
Two days after the funeral I met with a somber mom and explained the situation.  She had no hesitation about Grace going and was extremely grateful to all involved at the life-saving chance this would give to her daughter.  We worked frantically at getting Grace her passport and visa.  Because of some red-tape and mis-steps, although we finally got both, we missed a deadline to apply for free flights for Grace to the US by 3 days.  But our God is bigger than deadlines, and the folks at American Airlines granted her the "Kids Miles"and even provided an escort to take her from Lomé to Indianapolis free of charge.  She will be staying with Dr. Ed and his family after being discharged from the hospital.  And as God would have it, a former Togo short-termer, Amie Bockstahler, is a nurse at Riley and will get to help out with Grace in the states and accompany her back all the way to Togo!

Bernadette (middle) with her mom, dad and sister Jeanette

My real Thanksgiving came 2 days early when we had a dinner with all the missionaries along with both the Pariko family (Berna's family) and Grace's family.  We ate a huge Togolese meal and Praised the Lord for His work in both these families lives.  The meal fell 2 weeks after the anniversary of Berna's return home and 2 weeks before Grace's trip to Indy.

I know there are sick children all over the world who die from lack of access to care like we have in the US.  We take care of those kids everyday here at HBB, and I spend many nights fighting against despair and questioning God's ways.  But then I see, that in His kindness and sovereignty, God chose to provide for these 2 children in a miraculous way.  We can ask, "Why not those others?" or we can choose to say, "Thank you for saving them." Isn't that what Thanksgiving is?  Recognizing that we deserve nothing and each thing God provides for us, from surgery to our very breath, is a gift from the Lord.

Yesterday, I tried to explain Thanksgiving to some Togolese friends of mine.  "It's a day when all American's spend with friends and family to give thanks." One Togo man said, "I don't understand, don't you give thanks to God everyday?!"
Amen my friend. Amen.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

An aside.

This is NOT a normal blog for me…so beware !
But I feel that it is necessary to write, not only for me, but for many others out there who are like me (insert sarcastic comment: “Kelly, there is no one out there like you”)  haha. Ok, true.  Like me= Single missionary for this context.  Anyways……

I want to address a VERY COMMON conversation I have with people when they find out I am and will-be a long-term missionary in Africa.  It goes something like this:

Me: “Actually, I live in West Africa.”
Person: “ You LIVE there?!  Like forever?”
Me: “Well, at least until I feel the Lord asking me to live somewhere else”
Person: “Wow.  Well, are you married?”
Me: “Nope.”
Person: “Oh, so I guess you don’t want to get married.”
OR (version 2)
Person: “well how are you ever going to get married if you live in Africa?!

Insert my triple take, furrowed brows and look of confusion… followed by my sarcastic remark of:
“Oh yes of course, because there aren’t any men if Africa!” 

Now, this isn’t a blog about whether or not I want to ever get married; On the contrary.  It’s about obedience.   I believe that there is a passion given to each of us that comes from the Lord.  Not just the passion we have for the Lord, but a desire to use a particular talent, idea, or ability to further the kingdom of God.   I believe we can be most in line with the “mysterious will of God” when we honor the Lord through these things and give Him all the glory for what happens as a result.

So, when an opportunity comes to live out this God-given passion and gift, and it happens to take you to a difficult place, what is the correct response?  GO!!  When Jesus said to the disciples, “Come follow me,” they were expected to drop their fishing nets and follow him.  For the disciples to have responded, “I’ll be right there, I just need to finish building my house,”or “I’m coming!  I just want to do one more……”
I have met too many women (and men) who passionately want to reach the Nations for the Lord, who refuse to go because they won’t until they are married.  This mindset is troubling to me, and yet at the same time I have been there.   For me, at least, it came down to trust. 

Do I trust the Lord?
Do I trust Him to take care of me if I’m alone? 
Do I trust him to bring me a spouse anywhere I am in the world? 
Do I trust him if He NEVER brings me a spouse? 

The conversation at the beginning is a problem because it’s extremely discouraging for someone who is hoping to get married while trying to trust in the Lord by moving overseas as a single.  It’s also showing our small view of God to think he is limited by country borders or location when it comes to his sovereign will on who will be married.  It’s also assuming that everyone’s goal in life is to be married.
Maybe a better conversation would be:

Person: “Are you married?”
Me: “Nope.”
Person: “Well how can I help encourage you while you are overseas”
OR “Well tell me more about your ministry and the people you will be serving”
OR even “Are you nervous moving/living overseas as a single person?”

I think marriage is a amazing thing, created by God, to mirror Christ and His church.  And if two people desire to marry, and are passionately serving God in a way that is honoring to him, YAY!  But if getting married, or wanting to get married, ends up keeping you from fulfilling the passion for Serving Him that He has placed in your life, you need to ask yourself if you trust Him. 

In all honesty, I do hope to be married one day.  But, if I am single for the rest of my days, then I will trust that God had His purpose for it.  And maybe I was better able to serve Him as a single woman than I would have as a married one.   Because I KNOW I am in the right place.  And I’d rather die a single woman in Africa than live as a married woman anywhere else.   But thanks be to our God that those aren’t the only two choices! J

So if you know a single missionary, ask how you can encourage them or be a listener.  If you know a single person considering missions, don’t discourage them from going based on their marital status.   If you are already married, invite your single friends to hang out and not just to babysit your kids (although I don’t mind babysitting your kids, too!)  Let’s all find out how we can push one-another to be the active hands and feet of Jesus, and passionately serve Him in all the Nations!