Nestled between Guinea and Liberia, along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, lies Sierra Leone. A West African country that has faced the horrors of an 11-year war killing more than 50,000 people, and a year of Ebola which left close to 4,000 people dead including nearly one tenth of the country’s doctors, nurses, and other medical providers.
A Pivotal Moment
More than 40 years before the war, Ronald Baker, MD, retired Southwestern Medical Center physician and current board member, was living in Sierra Leone. Ron’s parents moved to the country when he was three years old—called to live as missionaries, deeply invested in their new community and the people who lived there.
On December 1, 1955, 10-year-old Ron and his 8-year-old brother hopped into a rickety boat to head downriver to take part in a school picnic. After all of the fun activities, the boys piled back onto the launch (boat with an awning) with the rest of the students to head home. After sailing back up the river, a swipe of the current caused the awning to collapse, killing Ron’s brother, three students, and a teacher.
Amidst their loss, the Baker family stayed—finding comfort and solace in continuing their love and care for the people they were called to serve. Seeing the spiritual and physical strength his parents had as they continued their work was a pivotal moment in Ron’s life—and an act of love and selflessness that the people of Sierra Leone never forgot.
More than 60 years later, in October 2016, a door was opened for Ron to share his experience of continuing his parents’ legacy in mission work, his 16 years of serving as an experienced medical doctor in Sierra Leone, and the great need for physicians, nurses, and other medical providers in countries like Sierra Leone, Haiti, and Nepal.
In the midst of the crowd sat Kimberly Stillman, DO, a third-year medical resident at Lakeland Health with a passion and heart for serving her patients. With a plan to go to Kenya still hovering in her mind, she spoke with Ron about her desire to do a medical missions trip.
Ron listened as she began expressing her concern that Kenya was no longer accepting visiting doctors of osteopathic medicine and her hope of serving there was beginning to wane. Knowing her desire and the need in Sierra Leone, Ron offered to take Kimberly on a mission trip to Sierra Leone. As soon as the conversation ended, plans began to fall neatly into place.
A Life-Changing Experience
On the heels of a new year, Kimberly and Ron were joined by Kimberly’s husband, Matt; Daniel Metzger, MD, and Elaine Metzger, RN; Ian Jackson, MD, and his wife, Laura, and daughter, Esther; a nursing student from Indiana; and the director and associate director of Global Ministries, the sending organization of the group for a two week trip to Mattru, Sierra Leone.
A car ride to Detroit, three flights, a water taxi, an eight hour trip by land cruiser, and a nighttime canoe river crossing later, the team arrived at what would be their new temporary home and workplace. Since Ron had spent most of his life there, he caught up with old friends and neighbors who welcomed their “brother” back with open arms.
After a traditional meeting with the Paramount Chief, the highest-level political leader in the region, the group was accepted to begin their work at Mattru Hospital. Besides a few patients and a team of local nurses and clinical health officers, the hospital was essentially empty.
As soon as word began to spread through the local radio station that the mission team had arrived, the hospital quickly filled with expectant mothers, people in need of outpatient services, and others who required surgery and emergency care.
“Unfortunately, there were several tragic cases in which we were limited in how much we could do given the lack of available medications, laboratory studies, medical equipment, and of course specialists,” Kimberly said. “However, I was always amazed with how much we could still do with so little.”
The operating room often times went without electricity and the only imaging modality available was a small portable ultrasound machine that had been donated to the hospital. None of the permanent staff at the hospital knew how to operate the machine so it went unused until Kimberly and Ian arrived.
In one case, an 18-year-old woman was suffering from an overwhelming infection of the pelvis. She had already undergone a hysterectomy without anesthesia or medication, and was traumatized by the experience. Ultrasound helped to confirm the suspicion of a tubo-ovarian abscess. This time using ketamine for sedation, Kimberly and Ian were able to operate on the patient and complete a successful drainage of the infection.
“Despite the prior suffering this patient endured and the hard reality that she will never be able to have children, her spirit was never broken. She greeted me every day with a smile and a hug,” Kimberly said. “I have received news since returning that she is doing great and is out of the hospital. She was one of many patients I felt privileged to care for. The impact the patients had on our team was greater than they could ever know.”
The mission team spent time not only helping patients but also handed out two duffle bags full of homemade diapers, dresses, and hats to new moms and babies; took a boat trip to see the river’s waterfalls; and spent some time visiting Ron’s brother’s gravesite.
Throughout their time in Sierra Leone, each group member felt the deep emotional and spiritual impact the people had made on them despite all that the residents had suffered through for the past 26 years.
“I met mothers who had lost children from malaria and other treatable diseases and heard about others who died in childbirth because they couldn’t afford the three dollar trip from their village to the hospital,” Kimberly said. “And despite the daily tragedies arising from insufficient health care, a decade-long civil war, an Ebola epidemic, and an overwhelming lack of support from central or local government agencies, the people we met in Sierra Leone were loving, gracious, and resilient. It was one of the greatest privileges of my life to spend two weeks with this community.”
It is both Kimberly and Ron’s hope that more residents and medical staff will understand and have a desire to gain the invaluable experience of serving people in desperate need of health care services.
To help in this mission, Southwestern Medical Clinic Foundation is providing limited scholarships to those in the medical industry who feel called to serve on short-term medical missions across the globe. If you or someone you know is interested in short-term mission work, visit www.swmcf.org to learn more about the scholarship program, read other impactful stories, and mission trip applications.