“We were infused with the grace of God right away and it carried throughout the day.”

Nothing was going right in the neonatal intensive care unit at Arusha (Tanzania) Lutheran Medical Center. Three babies had died in a week. Nurses and mothers alike were devastated and discouraged.  

When Nicole Schank brought a cake to celebrate a milestone for the unit’s smallest baby, the dark mood lifted. “Moms and nurses danced and passed around the cake,” she said. “We were so happy and excited that a baby born weighing just 790 grams (1.74 pounds) had reached 2 kilos (4.4 pounds)!”  

Schank, an intensive care unit nurse at Children’s Hospital of Minnesota, spent seven months at the center and nearby Selian Lutheran Hospital through Lutheran Global Health Volunteers. The ELCA program matches health care professionals and others with companion Lutheran hospitals in Liberia, Tanzania and India in response to specific personnel requests. The hospitals seek qualified medical professionals who can stay at least four weeks and are ready for the challenges of volunteering across cultures. 

When Schank immersed herself in the culture and practices of the Tanzanian hospitals, she began to realize that morale was low. “Women told me that in Tanzania, nursing isn’t as respected a profession as it is in the U.S.,” she said. “A lot of my job was proving to them how special they are, and the impact they made when they worked together. Together we tried to create a praising environment, where we encouraged and trusted each other. It felt like a great improvement.” 

Volunteers need to be “willing to emphasize teaching with humility and serving rather than ‘doing and leaving,’ ” said Steve Swanson, an ELCA missionary and doctor at the Arusha hospital. 

Susan MacKinnon, a member of Milwaukie (Ore.) Lutheran Church, had been part of medical teams in Nicaragua, Kenya and Burundi. On one of those trips, the retired internist and her teammates had seen up to 200 patients a day. “You can do cataract surgery or dental work that way, but not internal medicine,” she said. “You can’t fix hypertension or depression with a pill.” 

She then volunteered through the ELCA program at Parkijuli (India) Christian Hospital, which “delivers care over time, with real relationships among medical staff and patients.”  

MacKinnon worked alongside medical superintendent and doctor Rohibiam Iswary in the outpatient clinic and cared for patients admitted to the hospital. “He knew their families and could give me background on their situations,” she said. “I would assist at operations, review ultrasounds and discuss cases with him. We learned from each other.”  

‘A life-changing experience’ 

In addition to nurses and doctors, Padhar Hospital in the Betul District of Madhya Pradesh, India, asked the ELCA for English teachers for its nursing school. The school trains workers for the remote 200-bed hospital, operated by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Madhya Pradesh.  

With many years of experience teaching English as a second language, Mark and Jane Tafel of Minneapolis could step right in to planning and preparing lessons.  

“Our first-year students were from very small villages and in some cases were the first of their families to have an opportunity to get formal training,” Mark said. “English is used in the hospital, especially among residents and interns from English-speaking countries, so it’s an important part of their professional development.” 

The couple was humbled by the faith and discipleship they witnessed. “Gathering for morning chapel with hospital personnel and students was a lovely way to start the day,” Jane said. “We were infused with the grace of God right away and it carried throughout the day.” 

Prepping lessons, studying Hindi with a fellow teacher and wandering the village filled their after-school hours. “We were so grateful to be able to experience this, while contributing to student learning,” Jane said.  

Like all participants in Lutheran Global Health Volunteers, the Tafels paid their transportation, passport and inoculation fees, and covered their living costs. The ELCA facilitated their visas and provided international health insurance. 

Currently, the program is looking for medical professionals in all fields to volunteer for one to three months, although longer stays are possible.   

Whether they’re teaching or serving, volunteers are impacted in ways they could never imagine. 

For Schank, working alongside ELCA companions in Arusha “was a life-changing experience.” Inspired by Tanzania’s multigenerational households, she moved back in with her parents when she returned to the Twin Cities. “Now I appreciate family so much more than I ever did,” she said.  

Anne Basye
Basye, a freelance writer living in Mount Vernon, Wash., is the author of Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal (ELCA, 2007).

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