Parallel journeys to east Africa

Glory Reitz — Staff Writer

Photo credit: Alinda Brouwer

Looking out the airplane windows over Tanzania, the winter AMOR group thought the African landscape looked like a scene from The Lion King. It was three days after Christmas, and seventeen students from Dordt University had been traveling for a full day on their journey from Sioux Falls, S.D to Kilimanjaro. Over the next two weeks, the team would play with orphans, tour medical clinics, and shadow at Mount Meru Hospital.

Two days earlier, another local team arrived in Tanzania, also on a medical mission trip. But Hope Ministries, run out of Elk Point, S.D by Gayle Stroschein, launched a much smaller group of five. Stroschein brought an orthopedic spine surgeon and his wife, and two Dordt nursing students. Alinda Brouwer and Abby Dykstra, both juniors, spent a full three weeks bouncing between clinics and hospitals, spattered with intermittent days of rest.

Both missions were medically oriented, and every student who traveled to Tanzania has a healthcare-related major. But each trip’s goals were different. Robbin Eppinga, a Dordt biology professor, led the AMOR group with the intent of educating students—not looking to train skills, but to increase awareness of the world outside North America.

Stroschein desired for her team to provide medical care to far-out villages and train local doctors in how to properly execute surgeries. This meant Alinda Brouwer and Abby Dykstra both got to “scrub in” and assist with surgeries in an environment most American healthcare students don’t experience.

“The electricity went out a couple times during surgery,” Brouwer said, “and they’re just like ‘Okay, let’s whip out our phone flashlights and keep going.’ And I’m standing there holding a woman’s bones in place, and her iliac crest is exposed and we’re doing a bone graft and there’s no lights, and I don’t know her vitals… but this is fine.”

Grant Brouwer, a pre-med senior, signed up for the AMOR trip. His team also dealt with power outages and other troubling conditions in Tanzanian hospitals and clinics. He remembers opening windows to keep the heat down, flies buzzing around fresh wounds, and a woman who fell into a cooking fire, charring her entire arm black.

“The hardest part for me was seeing people in surgeries without pain medicine and proper aseptic technique,” Grant Brouwer said. “Because it makes you realize that we live in a pain free country.”

Both groups also had their eyes opened to the Tanzanian health providers’ lack of equipment. Grant Brouwer learned that due to low supply and budget, plates and screws drilled into bone are usually removed and reused after the patient has healed.

In a different village of the same country, Alinda Brouwer scrubbed in on a surgery for a 41-year-old woman who broke her arm in a motorcycle (or piki-piki) accident 16 years ago. She had paid for her surgery, but the screws in her arm hadn’t held. Fourteen years later, in 2019, the woman still suffered from a broken arm. She saved up enough money for an x-ray, which revealed the break had re-separated.

“You could take the two ends of [her arm] and just spin it around,” Dykstra said, remembering the team’s initial evaluation.

Photo credit: Abby Dykstra

When the Hope Ministries group arrived at the first of two Maasai villages they visited, they found over 100 people already lined up, waiting for them. In two, nine to ten-hour workdays, the team saw 250 patients, and ended up referring 35 for possible surgery.

Robbin Eppinga, leading the AMOR Tanzania trip for the fifth time, said his team served “far more” this year because they were able to bring a wide range of doctors: including an ophthalmologist, a pediatric physician, and, for the first time, a dentist—who pulled over two dozen teeth.

Both missions were funded by donation. Stroschein makes running and fundraising for Hope Ministries her full-time job. Brouwer and Dykstra laugh and use air-quotes when they call the woman a “retired” nurse. But watching Stroschein pray every day, “Lord, put the money in my pocket for these people” as the cost of medical care stretched higher over the budget, the students also learned to see the bigger picture. Rather than a quick “big fix,” Stroschein and her team wanted to leave something sustainable behind.

“Let’s not just swoop in and save the day,” Alinda Brouwer said. “How do we teach these people to help themselves so when we’re gone, they can still do what we were doing when we were there?”

Both the AMOR and Hope Ministries trips spent time in local culture, learning to appreciate the differences. And though Tanzanian medical facilities have a long way to go, Grant Brouwer found common ground with the Tanzanians who worship the same God as he does, from an ocean away.

One morning of the trip, Brouwer and some friends climbed a water tower to watch a Sunday sunrise. “We were up at about six o’clock in the morning, and we could already hear a church from probably a couple miles away,” Brouwer said. “We could hear them singing and shouting… And then we did our stuff throughout the day. We got back to where we stayed at in the afternoon. And they were still having church.”

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