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.

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