Preparing for the Journey

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  –Frederick Buechner


For the past two years, Africa has lingered with me, like the scent of a dryer sheet on an old cotton t-shirt, just barely noticeable, familiar in a way.  It hovers over me, and day to day, I find myself thinking of Africa.  Once I entered an exam room to find a Sénégalese-American 6-year-old (elle peut parler français, mais elle ne veut pas); sometimes it’s Bono’s voice on the radio that reminds me that this other world exists.  Honestly, I think the Holy Spirit tugs me towards Africa with a very long rope, pulling in the slack as I loosen my grip on my home culture.  Matt and I have both looked forward to returning to Zambia since our last trip in 2007.  This is an account of our experience, but it’s not really about us.  We hope anyone reading will be able to see as we did, that this world is desperate, and our current situation is absolutely critical.


“’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD.”  –Isaiah 55:8


Planning to take 25 medical professionals to Zambia is no easy task.  Even though this trip to Kitwe is in its 5th year, difficulties peppered our preparations for this year’s travel.  At a critical time during our planning, economic hardship forced our organization’s central office to downsize, laying off support staff.  During this time, our trip dates were rescheduled three times, twice by our organization, and once because our airline cancelled our flight.  Lack of personnel at the office caused delays in shipping medical supplies to each team member, and we each found ourselves scrambling to pack everything in time.  Once our plans were straightened stateside, we still had to work with Zambia.  This year, the Zambian government changed their credentialing process which created a time-consuming stack of paperwork for each physician, nurse practitioner, and dentist to complete.  Even after sending multiple copies of official documents, they didn’t seem to have all the necessary information to license us to practice in Kitwe.  For a country with a shortage of health care workers, they certainly make it difficult for American docs to practice there.  Prior to our departure, we also found several of our team members suffering with health problems of various kinds.  One of our newer members was diagnosed with lymphoma weeks before our departure.  Fortunately, it was an early stage and he was able to undergo surgical resection and still join us.  Two of our other team members dropped out just a week before our departure due to health problems.  Unfortunately, we were unable to retrieve the supplies that had been shipped to them, so we left without suture materials, bandages, IV fluids, and angiocaths.  We also left without two of the most experienced internal medicine providers on the team.  After all of this, our team leader called for extra prayer warriors stateside to intercede for us during our travels.

Matt and I flew to Washington D.C. two days before our scheduled departure for Zambia.  We wandered around the city, toured the Smithsonian, and devoured Armand’s Pizza (our last American food for awhile).  We were incredibly ready for Saturday, our big travel day to Zambia.  We arrived at Dulles International Airport early, and we were so glad to see team members from the 2007 team.  We lounged at the gate catching up with our old friends and meeting new members of the team.  We boarded the plane at about 7:30 for our 8:00 pm departure.  At 9:00 when we were still sitting at the gate, I thought “whatever” (see 2007 notes and Philippians 4:8) and cracked open a new book.  At some point, the pilot explained that there was a problem with the airplane’s controls, not to worry, they were working on it.  Behind me, a few of our other team members were fuming, still belted into their seats, stressed by this delay.  A few hours later, the pilot said, “repairs are taking a little longer than we thought, but we’ll serve dinner, and hopefully be in the air soon.”  How long does it take 4 flight attendants to serve dinner, drinks, coffee, and tea to 220 people?  About 3 hours.  After we had spent five hours on our plane at our gate, our attendants asked us to disembark and wait for further instructions (very politely, in 3 languages).  Since our group was so large, we were escorted at about 3 am to the Marriott Airport Hotel without knowing when our flight might leave.  The picture above is our team waiting not-so-patiently for our taxis to the hotel.  At 7:30 am, we awoke to a call, “we need you at the airport immediately.”  “Not before I shower,” I thought.  Twenty minutes later, we received another call, “Never mind.”  This uncertainty is trying for Americans.  We are a culture of planners, and our team was made up of doctors, nurses, and physician assistants, born perfectionists with tight schedules.  We spent the morning and lunch at the hotel.

Our flight finally left at around 5 pm with a load of more-than-a-little-frazzled Americans.  As impressive as we are with our higher education, it doesn’t take more than a single delayed flight to clench jaws and whiten knuckles.  Fortunately, Ethiopian Airlines split our delayed flight into two.  Half the passengers from our original flight left on an earlier plane, so our flight wasn’t particularly full.  We had some room to spread out.  I found myself thankful for an extra night’s sleep in a comfortable bed, two more hot showers before giving in to the African dust, a functional airplane, some empty seats on the plane, and an earlier arrival in Addis Ababa, which meant a longer rest time before the final leg of the journey to Zambia.  As our plane crossed the dark Atlantic and I tried to sleep, I was struck by God’s goodness, his brilliance, his foresight in planning all of this.

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