At Home and Overseas
No one could have known that an idea, started in a cornfield in rural Berrien County, would make such an impact worldwide. In 1968, a group of physicians formed Southwestern Medical Clinic. The practice began with a commitment to Christian medical missions. Later, in an effort to mobilize people and resources, the Southwestern Medical Clinic Foundation was formed. Since 1995, the foundation has raised and provided financial support for providers in need of medical equipment and supplies for global medical missions. Dozens of medical students and residents have also been awarded fellowship grants in support of overseas medical rotations.
So Much with So Little
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.
Ron Baker, MD, a recently retired family physician at Southwestern Medic Clinic, was raised in Sierra Leone and spent 16 years as a medical missionary there. He knew the great need the country had for medical providers and continues to organize many long- and short-term trips. In 2017, his passion for medical mission work led to another two-week mission trip at the country’s Mattru Hospital.
Traveling along with Dr. Baker was Kimberly Stillman, DO, a third-year medical resident, and her husband Matt; Daniel Metzger, MD, and his wife Elaine Metzger, RN; Ian Jackson, MD, and his wife and daughter; a nursing student from Indiana; and the director and associate director of Global Ministries.
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 Dr. Baker had spent most of his life there, he caught up with old friends and neighbors who welcomed their “brother” back with open arms. 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,” said Dr. Stillman. “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 equipment 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 Drs. Jackson and Stillman 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. An ultrasound helped to confirm the suspicion of a tubo-ovarian abscess. This time using ketamine for sedation, Drs. Jackson and Stillman 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,” said Dr. Stillman. “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 not only spent time helping patients, but also handed out 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 Dr. Baker’s brother’s gravesite.
Throughout their time in Sierra Leone, each team member admits to feeling a deep emotional connection with the local residents who’ve suffered for the past 26 years.
“I met mothers who had lost children from malaria and similar treatable diseases; I heard about others who died in childbirth because they couldn’t afford the three-dollar trip from their village to the hospital,” said Dr. Stillman. “Despite the daily tragedies they faced, 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 Drs. Baker and Stillman’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, or others like it, visit www.swmcfoundation.org and learn more about the scholarship program, read other impactful stories, or make a tax-deductible donation.