Ugandan mission trip eye-opening for groupNovember 14, 2017
By LEANN BURKE
When Todd Mehringer gave an elderly Ugandan woman glasses during a recent mission trip, she knelt before him in the country’s ultimate gesture of thanks.
“Of course, I started crying,” Mehringer said.
Mehringer, the materials manager at Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center, was one of eight locals associated with the hospital to make the trip to the east African country at the end of October to bring medical aid to Ugandans through Ray of Hope Medical Center in Kampala.
Two medical doctors, two dentists, an optometrist and support staff were all part of the local group that joined an 18-person mission trip organized through Terri Clark Ministries of Arkansas and served Ugandans throughout the area surrounding Kampala by offering free medicine and medical care.
Mehringer worked with an eye doctor during the trip, and he recalled several patients who were ecstatic after being given a used pair of glasses.
“I feel like there was some real good done medically,” he said.
Most of the people Mehringer saw just wanted to be able to read their Bibles, he recalled. In Uganda, 80 percent of the population identify as Christians.
The trip was a long time in the making, but it all started when Mary Ann Kieffner, a member at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Boone Township, heard Ray of Hope founder Monique Mubiru speak in 2003. Mubiru and Terri Clark of Terri Clark Ministries united to form Ray of Hope, and Kieffner brought the information about Ray of Hope back to her church. St. John’s is now regularly part of mission trips through Terri Clark Ministries.
Steve Hopf, a gynecologist at Memorial Hospital, is also a member of St. John’s. When he heard that Terri Clark Ministries was organizing a medical mission trip, he got other Memorial staff on board to go. The group included: Hopf; Sister Rose Mary Rexing; family practitioner Jeannie Gruber; registered nurse Pamela Hill-Groves; EMT Carolyn Fuhs; lab specialist Diann Zehr; and materials manager Todd Mehringer and his daughter, Alexis. Alexis hopes to make her life’s work aiding the people of Africa.
Some members of the group had met Mubiru prior to traveling to Uganda since she has traveled to Jasper twice to have surgeries performed at Memorial Hospital. Over the years, Mubiru has kept in touch with doctors at Memorial, and the connection between Mubiru and some of Memorial’s staff has grown. Now, Rexing said, Memorial is looking at forming a formal relationship with Ray of Hope as part of the Catholic Health Association’s call for its hospitals to share resources with hospitals in developing countries.
Hopf describes Mubiru as a Ugandan Mother Teresa. She worked as a nurse for a doctor in Uganda, but quit when she found out the doctor was performing abortions, a procedure she does not support. When Mubiru left the clinic, several of the patients would come to her home where she lived with her husband, a pastor named John, and four children, in search of care. Before long, Mubiru was offering care out of her home.
“She kind of had her own little clinic, informally,” Hopf said.
Many of the medical issues the team saw during their trip would be easily cured or managed in the United States: malaria, poor eyesight, and HIV/AIDS to name a few. In Uganda, however, most people, especially in rural areas, cannot afford basic health care, and there is no insurance system to help.
The AIDS epidemic is a major example of the medical struggles Ugandans face compared to Americans. In Uganda, Hopf said, a pregnant woman infected with AIDS has a 50 percent chance of passing it to her baby.
In the U.S., the chance is less than 1 percent. Hundreds of Ugandan children are orphaned by the disease, as well.
“I had a lady come up to me and say, ‘Dr. Steve, you have to do something about HIV,’” Hopf recalled. “It’s killing us.”
Even maladies as simple to Americans as yeast infections were difficult to treat in Uganda, especially in rural areas. Hopf said he’d see a patient with a yeast infection and offer medication, but when he asked if she had a shower or a way to keep herself dry and clean, she’d say she had a spigot and a bucket. In Uganda’s hot climate, the infection was likely to return.
Hopf also recalled working with many women looking for guidance about infertility. Without access to medical tests and procedures available in developed countries, there was little Hopf could offer the women. In those cases, he prayed with them. Just having someone care and try to help was enough.
The team worked 12-hour days for the week they were there, but they also got a couple days for fun. Ray of Hope also operates a farm in the rural area outside Kampala, and the group got to tour it. While they were there, some kids ran up to Hopf and offered him live termites. He thought they were playing a joke, so he tried to hand them back, but the kids told him he was supposed to eat them. He asked the translator if that was true, and, after getting a confirmation, gave it a try.
“You have to bite them really fast or they’ll bite you,” he said.
He didn’t get bitten.
Lack of medical care wasn’t the only sign of poverty in the country. Rexing recalled that many of the children, especially in rural areas, were often dirty and wore torn clothes. Many times, people had to walk to a well to gather water, and electricity was sparse.
While most people could read, few spoke English, instead using their native language, Lugandan.
Despite the poverty, the people seemed happy and grateful for what they had and anything the visitors gave them. Rexing brought stickers for the children and baby hats to give to expectant mothers and mothers with babies, and Mehringer brought a box of kids meal toys to offer the children. Many times, the Ugandans would kneel in thanks.
Mehringer was amazed at the contentedness he saw in the Ugandans and said that seems to be lacking in the U.S. For him, the trip was perception-changing. Before he went to Uganda, he pictured the Lion King when he thought about Africa. Now he knows the country has cities and buildings like ours and people that live full lives.
“This was the first (mission trip) I’ve been on,” Mehringer said. “There’s no question in my mind it won’t be my last.”
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