Monday, June 11, 2012


Childhood can be a magical time if you are lucky, and I was. I have so many happy memories to choose from, but our vacations in Nimba have to be at the top of the list. Being medical missionaries in rural Liberia could not have been easy for my parents, and life was pretty serious with a lot of hard work. But somehow the “powers that be” knew the toll that serving an impoverished population in a third world country could take on the missionaries and insisted that they take two consecutive weeks of vacation a year to recover, rejuvenate and re-energize for the challenges of the next year. Sometimes we went to the capital city of Monrovia and spent the time visiting with missionary friends and going to the beach, but our favorite place to go was Nimba.

Nimba was only about an hour on dirt roads from Ganta mission station where we lived, and was an area deep in the interior dominated by the Scandinavian iron ore mining company Lamco. It was an interesting combination of native Liberian structures and modern Scandinavian buildings and there was a house set aside for missionary vacations. I loved this this airy, open concept ranch, with its bunk beds and glass window panes, and there was hot water for a real bath! Mom and Dad could really relax here, and we kids would spend our time playing games and listening to records. Best of all, most days we would go to the pool - not just a regular pool, but a beautiful olympic sized pool with a regular diving board AND a high dive, a swing set, a terraced area for picnics and laying out, and a club house where on rare occasions we could get soda or snacks. To me this was the height of luxury and we never got tired of spending our days at the pool. These trips were an infrequent pleasure though, once a year if we were lucky.

I remember one Sunday when I was about nine years old, coming home from Sunday school at the Ganta mission elementary school and expecting to go right over to the church for worship. As we approached the house we saw Dad standing in the doorway, not wearing his usual Sunday clothes or even his doctor clothes, but a polo shirt and tennis shoes, with a smile of anticipation on his face. He told us that we were immediately going to Nimba for the day and I could tell how much he enjoyed giving us this unexpected news and watching our delighted reactions. I donʼt remember anything else about this day, why we went, how long we stayed, or what we did, I just remember the thrill of the moment when my relaxed and happy father said “weʼre going to Nimba”!

It makes me think of our Heavenly Father. When I come to the end of what I trust will be a long and happy life, and I approach the doorway between this life and the next, I imagine that I will see my Heavenly Father waiting for me with a smile of anticipation on His face, relaxed and happy, ready to take me on a wonderful trip.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Sekou Toure Avenue

For a very short time our family lived in a small apartment on Sekou Toure Avenue in Monrovia, Liberia. We had just spent a year in the states and had come back to Liberia to live in the city instead of returning to our rural Ganta mission home. Bill, Sandra, and I didn’t have much to do all day, since we had left our few friends and family back in the states, and our friends in Liberia were upcountry in Ganta or Phebe. Mom and Dad had been to a missionary conference at Lake Junaluska while we were on furlough, and they brought back a cassette tape of praise music called De Colores. Having little else to do in this new environment we listened to the tape frequently, and I especially remember the upbeat title song. We listened to it so often that De Colores has always seemed like the theme song of this interlude in our lives.

Although our stay was short it was eventful and memorable. I remember the violent tropical storm when a transformer blew outside our window in the middle of the night, with a blinding flash, and we children were frozen with fear until Mom and Dad came to us in our dark room. Another night we sat down to dinner and bowed our heads while Dad said grace. When the extra-long grace was done we looked up and Bill calmly said “there’s a fire in the kitchen.” We rushed into the kitchen to find the grease in the frying pan on fire, and while Mom and Dad frantically tried to find something with which to smother the flames Bill reached over and put the lid on the pan. The fire was out, but we were washing smoke off the walls for days. And Mom and Dad suggested to Bill that in the future he should feel free to interrupt the prayer for an emergency!

We soon moved into a more permanent house, started school, and life again took on the busy pattern of childhood. But I have always remembered that time on Sekou Toure Avenue, in between one season of our lives and the next, when it was just our family and the music of De Colores. Imagine my surprise many years later when I attended a Walk to Emmaus spiritual retreat, and for the first time in about 35 years I heard De Colores again. We sang it frequently throughout our weekend and I loved thinking about the connection of my faith journey between my African childhood and my American adulthood; and for a little while I was 11 years old again, playing with my brother and sister on the other side of the world, in that little apartment on Sekou Toure Avenue.

“De Colores and so must all love be of every bright color to make my heart cry.”

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Starting Again

"Picking up the pieces, now where to begin? The hardest part of ending is starting again." Linkin Park Waiting for the End

It's been a year and a half of one medical crisis after another, with my daughter's wedding as the bright spot tucked into the middle of it all. I have been going from one appointment, procedure, event, celebration, emergency etc. to another for what seems like forever, but I seem to be at the end of the parade. What happens now? It's all over so I can put it behind me and start to get back to normal, right? Well, not exactly. I'm left with the residue of my many health issues and, not to be depressing, but they will be with me for the rest of my life.

After my breast biopsy last July we were thrilled and relieved that no cancer was found BUT... atypical cells were found and I need to be checked at the cancer center once a year, along with my routine mammogram, indefinitely.

After my brain surgery to remove a pituitary adenoma (a mass in my sinus cavity) last September we were happy that it was benign BUT... the doctors had to leave five percent in because it was too close to the arteries and optic nerve and I will need regular MRIs indefinitely to ensure that it doesn't grow back.

The cyberknife radiation treatments I had in January, though terrifying because of my claustrophobic tendencies, were not invasive and had few side effects BUT... there is no guarantee that the radiation will stop further growth of the tumor, and there may have been damage to healthy tissue - time will tell.

My endocrinologist has found little evidence of damage to my pituitary gland (yay!) and my hormone levels are normal so far BUT... radiation treatments cause progressive deterioration of the pituitary gland over time which may result in the need for hormonal replacement supplements - so I'll be making a visit to my endocrinologist twice a year for the foreseeable future.

The aneurysm behind my left eye has been successfully closed off from any new blood flow, thus protecting it from bursting, and I came through a dangerous surgery with nothing but a slight visual disturbance BUT... I will need follow-up angiograms (not fun) to monitor how the device is working and to check for more aneurisms.

That's a lot of follow-up appointments, tests, and procedures, and when you look at the big picture, that's a lot of stuff that could go wrong. I have to admit, it weighs on me. How does one move forward into a productive, satisfying life with this kind of baggage to drag around? I know I'm not the only one with health problems, and many people have much bigger challenges to face, but that doesn't help me figure out how to get out from under the burden of worry and dread with each new follow-up event. Am I a time-bomb or a miracle? All I know is that I am tired, apathetic, and it should be no surprise that I have daily headaches.

I know the answer. It's complete trust in God and His plan, His care, His love, His power, and His control. Somehow, with the help of God and "the great cloud of witnesses," I have to internalize this and live it.

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us" Hebrews 12:1

Friday, December 24, 2010

Silent Night

It's 2:00 in the morning on Christmas Day. I sit in a dark living room basking in the colored, blinking lights of the Christmas tree. Our vintage train set with its more modern snowy village encircles the tree, and piles of presents are haphazardly strewn around the platform, looking enticing and mysterious. "Santa" has paid a visit and bulging stockings with wish-fulfilling presents propped against them are arranged on the couch, waiting for morning when they will be admired and enjoyed. In the dining room the table is set for our anticipated sweet roll breakfast with red, green, and silver dishes and decorations. The house is quiet, except for a ticking clock and an occasional sigh or snore from my sleeping family. I should be asleep too, because tomorrow will be a long and active day of gifts, food, and family. Usually I fall exhausted into bed on Christmas Eve when everything is finally ready for Christmas morning to come, but tonight I just want to enjoy this perfect time between preparing for the big day and diving into the festivities.

It's been a rough year for me with serious health concerns coming thick and fast for the last nine months. Most of it is behind me now and so many results have been positive, but I am worn out from the fight and it took an extra effort to get all of the Christmas preparations done this year. The kids and Ed have put up with enough anxiety about me in the last few months, I didn't want to skimp on any of our traditions or seem unable to celebrate the season with the usual enthusiasm. And anyway, I love Christmas and truly enjoy our traditions, most of which I started and have encouraged over the years. I didn't want to miss any of it. And now I want to stay right here, savoring the perfection of the moment, knowing that whatever happens tomorrow and in the coming months I will have the memory of this time in between preparation and celebration. But sleepiness is overtaking me so I make my way to bed, looking forward to similar Christmases, each with their own unique perfection, for many years to come.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Imagine No Malaria

Testimonial as shared with the Oakland United Methodist Church on Sunday, October 31, 2010

Good morning. We’ve been talking a lot about Malaria recently, and I wanted to share some of my experiences with malaria and why this issue is so close to my heart. Most of you know that I grew up in Africa. My parents were United Methodist medical missionaries in Liberia, which is on the west coast of Africa, and it was our home from when I was 3 until I was 14.

We don’t hear much about malaria in this country, except in conjunction with helping people in other countries, but when I was a kid it was a part of our everyday lives. It was kind of like the flu is here, pretty common and every now and then someone would get it and be sick for awhile, then get better. At least that was the way it was for the missionary families, because we took anti-malaria medicine every week the whole time we were in the country to protect us from a severe case of malaria. The Liberians didn’t have this protection - there wasn’t enough money or resources to deal with the issue - so malaria was much more likely to be deadly for them.

I probably had malaria a few times, but I only remember one, when I was about 8. I just remember a bad headache, body aches, high fever, and a sick stomach (kind of like the flu). But with medicine and the anti-malaria protection I had in my body I got better pretty fast - I was probably only sick for a few days. My sister Sandra wasn’t so lucky. She got malaria when she was about 4 and she kept getting it over and over again. My parents watched Sandra getting paler and thinner each time she got sick, and they had a hard time getting the medicine into her. It was camaquin, this huge yellow pill that had to be cut into quarters for children, so it was crumbly, and bitter, and hard to swallow. They tried it in Coke and in food but she kept choking it back up. I remember my father getting angry with her for spitting it out, and even at my young age I knew that he was only angry because he was afraid of what would happen if they couldn’t get the medicine into her. My mother remembers the two of them going into Sandra’s room when she was asleep and praying over her because they were so afraid that she would die. Well, the cycle finally ended and she got better and stayed well, but it was a frightening time for us all. Sadly, my main recollection of this time was that she kept getting all the paper dolls and coloring books that my mother set aside for us for when we were sick, and I was jealous. Kids!

As scary and serious as this was for our family it would have been much worse for a Liberian family - in spite of the medicine the child would probably have died. As a matter of fact, when we were there the mortality rate for children under 5 was 50% - in other words half of the children died before the age of 5, for a multitude of reasons. My father was one of 3 doctors at the mission hospital at the time, and with their limited time and resources they were dealing with more critical diseases like tetanus, cholera, leprosy, small pox and various tropical diseases. Dad spent his first few years there working at the hospital and learning the local dialect. After awhile he realized that he was treating the same diseases again and again, and what he really needed to do was prevent these diseases, so he came back to the states and got his degree in public health. Back in Liberia he spent the next few years traveling into the rural areas to vaccinate children, talk to the chiefs about digging wells for clean water (instead of drinking the water they bathed in and washed their clothes in), set up rural clinics, and teach clean childbirth practices and other prevention techniques. The last few years we were there he worked with the Liberian government to oversee health clinics and hospitals all over Liberia so health care could be more accessible to the people.

Why is his story important to eradicating malaria now? I was talking with Laura Meengs recently - she is the field coordinator for the Imagine No Malaria effort in our conference. When I asked about Liberia she told me that they were targeting Sierre Leone now, but that Liberia was next on the list. I told her about Dad and the clinics and said I thought they were probably all gone because of the long civil war Liberia has had. She said no, they are still there, and Imagine No Malaria was going to use those clinics to distribute medicine, bed nets, and education in the rural areas. So a project funded by the United Methodist Church over 30 years ago is going to be central in the effort to eradicate malaria now.

We were recently told by Dad’s doctor that he will probably only live a few more months. He has had Parkinson’s disease for over 25 years and is now losing weight quickly. But at the end of his life, the work he was called to do for God, and for the Liberian people that he loved so much, is gaining new life. And the clinics that he set up will be instrumental in saving the lives of countless people. The cycle of life continues. There were many missionaries that came before Dad to lay a foundation for his work, and many missionaries and Liberian Christians came and will keep coming after him to provide health care for this struggling people. We can be a part of the progression of this God ordained ministry by supporting the Imagine No Malaria effort, and help remove this huge health obstacle so that the people of Africa can be more productive, creative, and free to energetically serve God and each other.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Blessed Be Your Name

"On the road marked with suffering, though there's pain in the offering, blessed be Your Name"

The last few months have been a medical nightmare for me, not to mention for Ed and the rest of the family. I know I was run down from the stress of moving and adjusting to a new church and community, and of course the frustration of my inability to find a job in a library - my sense of self was severely effected. But come on, this is ridiculous!

It all started with a simple cold, that turned into a sinus infection, that turned into severe hives from an allergy to the antibiotic. After a trip to the emergency room I literally was turning blue from the intensity of the hives, couldn't walk because of the many hives on the soles of my feet, and couldn't bend my fingers - frightening. Steroids helped until I started having crazy side effects like a racing and pounding heart, extreme sensitivity to light and sound, fogginess, shortness of breath etc. In the middle of all this I had a routine appointment with my gynecologist where she found a large cyst on my ovary, which led to an ultrasound, and a recommendation for a hysterectomy because of possible cancer - no way was I jumping into something that serious! Off to Pittsburgh to my former doctor, another ultrasound and other tests, and a recommendation that nothing was seriously wrong and only a follow-up ultrasound was necessary. Whew, I dodged that bullet! So I went for my routine mammogram and lo and behold abnormal readings, a needle biopsy (inconclusive), another possibility of cancer and a surgical biopsy. This also came out negative (praise the Lord, but I was really freaked out at this point) though I am high risk and have to address that. I'm done, right? Wrong! Congestion immediately set in, another trip to the emergency room for a severe headache, exhaustion and lots of meds. Will it ever end? Hopefully the sinusitis will clear up, the followup ultrasound will show that the cyst is gone, and the high risk appointment at the Hillman Cancer Center will give me a good plan of action. But seriously, enough is enough. I've about had it with emergencies, cancer scares, and pain.

Well, the high risk appointment went well. Only a 2% risk of cancer in the next 5 years - I can live with that (no pun intended)! No such luck with the ovary though - it has to come out. But they are sure the cyst is benign so that is good. Things seem to going my way - only an outpatient surgery and all of this craziness is over. Or so I thought. I finally saw an ear, nose, and throat doctor about my constant congestion and sinus infections and got the scariest news so far. A CAT scan showed one sinus cavity is blocked and filled with what might be a tumor. Two surgeries later I am minus one ovary and and most of the tumor and still no cancer. Amazing! But the pituitary tumor is still partially there, fast growing, and will require radiation treatment and a lifetime of monitoring. I don't even know how to respond to this; I feel a combination of numbness and dread and my future is filled with unknowns.

All through this progression of events I have been really scared, and felt very alone. Ed has been with me every step of the way - every doctor's appointment, treatment, surgery, and symptom - but in the end it is my body that is betraying me and he can really only be my support and advocate. The hugs and loving words of my family have been invaluable but ultimately this is my battle. It reminds me of the old song:

We must walk this lonesome valley,
We have to walk it by ourselves;
Oh, nobody else can walk it for us,
We have to walk it by ourselves.

You would think that during this time I would draw closer to God, spending more time in prayer and leaning on Him through every trial. But instead I feel abandoned by Him - up until now my life has been pretty much filled with blessings and I can't help wondering what I did wrong to cause this avalanche of poor health and why God has withdrawn His blessings from my life. Of course I know, intellectually, that He is still there loving and taking care of me, and so I reach for Him and try to pray, but I just don't feel a connection. And this is where the power of the community of faith comes in.

Through it all one thing has become very clear - I have a great support group! I have been blown away by the way those around me have responded to my troubles. Our new church has been concerned and supportive with meals, cards, rides for Jonathon, calls, and many prayers. Our former church has also rallied around me, with calls, emails, texts, cards, and still more prayers. The library where I worked before the move has been great with emails, phone calls, a group get well card, and a wonderful surprise cookie/chocolate get well basket - I am touched by their generosity, and all I was expecting was prayer. My first surgery happened when we were at Jumonville for CAT Camp and we were surrounded by a loving Christian family with hugs, sympathy, advice, and an outpouring of prayer. And of course my close friends and family have been with us all the way, supporting us in any way they can, including many, many prayers. We are so blessed - I am humbled by the love that has been poured out on our family. Everywhere I look I see the face of God.

You see, by myself I couldn't find a connection to God, so He came to me in person. He has sent literally hundreds of believers to minister to me and my family in ways over and above anything I could imagine. I am so weak, and I still get lonely, depressed, and scared, but the strength of the community of faith is carrying me. Don't tell me God does not appear to us anymore - I know He is here among us because I have seen Him again and again.

"You give and take away, You give and take away, My heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be Your Name."

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The "C" Word

The "C" word. It's scary to even think about it, let alone say it. It all started with a routine annual mammogram. No anxiety, just get it done and don't think about it for another year. Then I got a phone call to come back for a follow-up mammogram - no big deal, this has happened before and I am in a new, smaller facility this time. The anxiety grew when I was told that there were some suspicious areas on the film and I needed a stereo-tactic biopsy (needle biopsy) - just the word "biopsy" gives me a cold feeling. Anxiety quickly turned to anger - did I really need this hassle, or were they being overly cautious because the facility was smaller and less advanced? Off we went to the best women's care facility in Pittsburgh for a scary, high-tech procedure that left me nervous and sore - this was getting serious! But I really did expect to get the news that all was well and nothing abnormal was found. Wrong again! I got a call from a nurse who (I thought) said that nothing abnormal was found but there was an overgrowth of cells in that area, which had to be taken out so they didn't become cancer (there's that word), and I should see a surgeon. I made the appointment, focusing on the good news - no cancer was found - this was preventative action; but the prospect of surgery was frightening. In spite of my deliberate positive attitude there was doubt lingering in the back of my mind. Isn't the overgrowth of cells the definition of cancer? (that word is starting to come up more often) Back to Pittsburgh for the surgical consult and reality set in - the surgeon clarified that the biopsy was inconclusive and they needed a larger area of tissue to test for cancer (the word has now exploded like a bomb into my world). The odds are in my favor - 80% of these biopsies come out negative - but I only heard 20%. I might have cancer. It's a small chance, and if I do the cancer is in the early stages and very treatable. But I might have cancer.

Images start flowing through my mind: the woman in the waiting room at my first biopsy with a head scarf (chemo? will that be me?), the woman in the wheel chair and the woman in the hospital bed who were also in the waiting room (what horrors were they dealing with? will that be me?) My grandmother died of cancer, one friend was terribly sick from chemo, another was weak and burnt from radiation, and the list goes on. We all have many heart-breaking memories of friends and family who have fought this disease. Have I become one of them? Our church supports a "Relay for Life" program that raises money for cancer research and treatment; it's an amazingly active community effort that culminates in a 24 hour walk/festival/celebration. The highlight is luminaries representing cancer survivors and victims lining the 1/4 mile track and up the bleachers. Will I be included in that glowing tribute next year, and will I be celebrated as a survivor or mourned as a victim? I know that is morbid and counter-productive - I have to stay positive and, after all, the odds are in my favor right? RIGHT?! Could someone please keep telling me that over and over again because I can't seem so focus on that fact!!

No matter what happens I know God will be with me and my family through it all - I felt His strong and comforting presence during my first biopsy, and I felt covered with the prayers of my loved ones. I KNOW He is with me and I will actively draw on his strength through the whole ordeal (it's already an ordeal even though nothing is conclusive). But I am weak. And I am scared. And the "C" word hangs like a cloud over my head, and sits like a lump in my gut.