Publication: One-to-One, Autumn 2005
In Congo, wars and government corruption have created a nation of “Have-nots.” While some minimal medical care is available, it is generally too little, too late, and much too far away. With virtually no roads, people often must walk more than 100 miles for treatment, or seek help from amateur “healers” in their village.
Approximately 15,000 people are blind in the Sankuru district, located in the center of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. More than 75% of these are blind because of preventable conditions, such as cataracts, advanced glaucoma, and other treatable diseases. Dr. Timothy Henry of International Outreach Ministries (IOM) is doing everything possible—and some things that don’t seem possible—to make certain it doesn’t happen to thousands more.
Only 3 of the 300 health centers in the district offer eye care, and only one offers more than eye washing, vitamins, and simple antibiotics. The Good News Medical Center in Lodja, with its medical and surgical ocular service, is that one. Established and directed by Dr. Henry, it is leading the way toward effective change in the treatment of preventable blindness in the Sankuru.
HEALING AND TRAINING
It is difficult to imagine how grievous it is to send a patient home blind because the boiled-leaf eye drops used by a traditional healer have destroyed his corneas. Or to explain to an otherwise healthy older man that the glaucoma which could have been surgically arrested years ago has gradually and permanently stolen his sight. Because of these and countless other patients whose lives could be changed with basic but effective eye care, Dr. Henry has established a medical and surgical eye care service in Lodja, with the vision of expanding it into a reference center of eye care, as well as a place of eye care training for nurses from throughout the region.
Spiritual blindness is even more prevalent in the area, which also concerns Dr. Henry. At the Good News Medical Center, the Christians on the staff begin each day with devotions. A full-time chaplain greets patients and shares the Gospel with them in various ways, often praying with Dr. Henry for their needs. Praise and worship music plays continually in waiting areas and post-op wards, and the Jesus film is shown often in the local dialect of Atetela. The staff also shares Christ with visiting nurses or doctors from remote village health centers and seeks to nurture their Christian faith before they return to their villages in prominent places of leadership.
Dr. Henry, a family-practice physician from Dallas, Texas, moved with his wife, Sharon, and his son, Peter, to the Congo in 1994, to strengthen and help provide future direction for IOM’s medical activities there. Ten years of service for the Henrys has included intensive language and tropical medicine training, the establishment of a primary care clinic, displacement in a time of civil war during which their home and clinic were pillaged, additional training in surgical eye care, and finally the addition of a full-faceted ocular care service. In addition to patients needing eye care, others have the opportunity, perhaps for the first time ever, to receive adequate treatment for such diseases as malaria which are a continual menace to the life and strength of their communities.
A NEW LEVEL
Now, however, Dr. Henry and IOM are seeking to raise this care to a dramatically new level. The present clinic is limited in function by its physical facility, a rented 5-room building built as a single- family residence, with no running water or electrical system. (Neither running water nor electricity is available in this town of 100,000 people. Due to the cost of fuel, a small clinic generator runs only a couple of hours per day for surgeries and to power the video simultaneously.) We have therefore conceived plans for, and begun construction of, a 15,000 square foot regional hospital and training center for medical and surgical eye care. Construction began in August 2004, and is estimated to require several years for completion, given the challenges of construction in the interior of a devel- oping nation. So far, a concrete foundation has been finished, and hand-made bricks are being prepared locally.
Imagine building a hospital 600 miles away from paved roads, with concrete brought by IOM’s river barges to a not-so-nearby river port, then trucked to Lodja in aging trucks over washed-out sand roads using expensive fuel. Local workers have seldom seen a concrete foundation poured, let alone one with actual re-bar as a base. The water was carried to the site in containers on workers’ heads, the concrete mixed with shovels, and poured over the rebar with wheelbarrows. The pictures of this process will give you an idea of the determination of this missionary doctor to bring Christ and quality medical care to the needy people of central Congo. An additional $170,000 will be required to complete the construction, and none of it is in hand.
These obstacles do not deter Dr. Henry, a former Eagle Scout who has committed his entire life to minister to the spiritual and physical needs of the Congolese. In addition to all I have described, Dr. Henry has also begun a simple video training program for pas- tors (run by that same little generator), disciples a group of teenage boys, directs the translation of books into Atetela, and has nearly completed a hand-dug 130 foot well which will someday provide fresh running water for the new hospital. Meanwhile, Sharon keeps house in this waterless world, teaches women’s Bible studies, helps with translation, and home-schools the very bright and inquisitive Peter. Together with the rest of the IOM team in Congo, they are out to change lives to the glory of God in a place where most live their lives in desperate need, and in which His glory is not often acknowledged.
Gary Henley is a member of the International Outreach Ministries (IOM) Board of Directors. He served as the President and Executive Director of IOM for twenty years, traveling widely and encouraging missionaries around the globe. In addition, he spent twenty-six years as a church planter and pastor.