Dale Molé, who runs an Adventist mission hospital in Nepal, talks about his career in the U.S. Navy and his stint as a doctor in the Antarctic, reminding us that a life of service is a life fulfilled.
Question: You are the CEO of Scheer Memorial Adventist Hospital in the suburbs of Kathmandu, Nepal, where you have been for six years. What is it like in Nepal right now, and at your hospital, with the global pandemic?
Answer: Nepal is a beautiful country plagued with grinding poverty, political unrest, poor governance, poor infrastructure, and now a global pandemic and economic meltdown. Misfortune seems to befall Nepal on a regular basis. Shortly after arriving here in 2014, we had the biggest earthquake in 84 years, leaving thousands dead, tens of thousands injured, and hundreds of thousands homeless. A few months later the border to India was closed for more than five months because of political disagreements, causing further devastation since 80% of our supplies come from India. Then a communist government came into power with a decidedly anti-foreigner agenda, followed by a new federalized structure causing much confusion and uncertainty as responsibilities shifted and newly created government positions remained unfilled. Labor unrest, political intrigue, and the occasional mass casualty event (such as a bus or truck filled with people going off a cliff or a gas explosion resulting in inhalation injuries and third degree burns for an entire extended family) thrown in for good measure make for an interesting place to work.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the financial meltdown are still in the very early stages here in Nepal, with the full impact yet to be felt. There are 1.5 million Nepali workers stranded in India, Malaysia, and the Middle East, all now without work for the foreseeable future and trying to get home. Some say 40% of Nepal's economy is from the foreign remittances of the Nepali migrant workers. The country locked down on March 24, 2020 and the borders remain sealed. My wife Susen and I made a decision not to repatriate to the United States, but to remain here in a time of crisis come what may.
The government is mostly paralyzed by a political battle for control within the Communist Party of Nepal. This certainly affects the response to the COVID-19 crisis. Important decisions are frequently delayed and eventually no action is taken. My prediction is the pandemic and financial crisis will hit Nepal very hard over the next six to 12 months.
Scheer Memorial is a 150-bed mission hospital founded by Dr. Stanley & Raylene Sturges in 1960. What are the good things about running the hospital? What do you find to be a challenge?
As an Emergency Medicine Physician, running this hospital reminds me of a busy Emergency Department on a Saturday night. I have not been bored since stepping onto Nepalese soil six years ago. With so many areas requiring significant improvement, the real challenge has always been where to direct one's attention. Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.
Working here is an emotional rollercoaster. You can experience the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” sometimes in the same day. Having a supportive, agile, and resilient spouse has proved essential. Also having a strong support network back home — in my case two older sisters — made serving here possible.
Perhaps one of the most enjoyable things for Susen and me has been working with the visiting international groups from the United States, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Canada, South Korea, and Japan that support and assist us in our mission. We have met truly wonderful people working to improve the lives of others. Our friends and former classmates from Adventist schools have also provided great financial and moral support. It really is heartwarming to see how many people care about the welfare of people they have never met.
Dale and Susen Molé.
You have worked in a lot of jobs in a lot of different places. Is your work in Nepal very different from what you have done before?
Nepal is completely different from anything I previously experienced. The Hindu world view, the overriding importance of personal relationships, the event-driven versus time-driven culture, and the extreme poverty make this a difficult place to work according to international norms. Perhaps the biggest challenge, as elaborated in a 2019 report on the business climate in Nepal, is the endemic corruption, the cumbersome bureaucracy, and the lack of the rule of law. Despite official government efforts at eradication, the caste system is still alive and well, as is a deep-rooted gender bias, superstition, and magical thinking. It is not uncommon for some of our patients to seek healing from a shaman or witch doctor and only come to our hospital when near death or with advanced disease.
That said, there are many wonderful people in Nepal. It is on their behalf that Susen and I have been working for the last six years. This country has huge potential, but it will probably take at least another generation to see that potential realized.
It is also a place where one can frequently see God's miracles. You quickly learn that you cannot do things by yourself and that you must rely upon the intervention of God to accomplish worthy goals, whether saving the lives of people who according to medical science should have died, or dealing with some incompetent and corrupt government officials. I have personally seen more miracles in my six years in Nepal than in a lifetime of working elsewhere. God does all the work, but gives us all the credit. Anything good that has happened here has only been as a result of God's grace.
Medical mission work has always been a major part of the Adventist message. Do you think this kind of work retains its importance to the Adventist world church? Is this model working?
Historically, medical mission work was extremely important, and I believe that has not changed. Christ tells us by word and action to first heal, then teach. One of my all-time favorite sermons was given by Lowell Cooper and titled “I would rather see a sermon than hear one any day.” It provides an extremely profound, powerful message and is one of the reasons Susen and I have been toiling in Nepal when we should be relaxing somewhere. People will judge us much more by what we do than by what we say. The world needs more missionaries and their work is now more important than ever before. But finding those with good skills, the right attitude, and the willingness to serve others seems to be increasingly difficult for many reasons.
Before you and your wife moved to Nepal, you served as the physician for the United States Antarctic Program during the winter season of 2012. What was that like?
Awesome… and I mean that literally. I found the Antarctic to be a very spiritual place, like being on another planet, especially at the geographic South Pole. Antarctica is a continent of extremes; it is the coldest, driest, windiest, remotest, emptiest place in the world. There is only one day and one night per year. The sun sets in early March and doesn't reappear until late September. From January to November 2012, I was the southernmost Adventist in the world. It was only minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit when I arrived in January, but in the midst of the austral winter the temperatures plunged to minus 107 below zero. When you exhaled, your breath instantly turned into tiny ice crystals. Exposed flesh froze solid within a few short minutes. One would have to suit up in multiple layers of extreme cold weather clothing before venturing outside the station. We were completely dependent upon technology to sustain our lives. If we lost power, we would all slowly freeze to death.
The Geographic South Pole.
Once the station closed to the outside world in mid-February, we were essentially marooned for six months. It is easier to evacuate a patient from the international space station or perhaps even the moon, than from the South Pole in winter. That was part of the attraction for me in the first place, knowing I would have to deal with whatever medical emergencies would arise amongst the 50 of us who were isolated from the rest of the world.
Interestingly, in the station library I discovered about a dozen hymnals left over from when the U.S. Navy used to run the Antarctic program for the United States. This was no surprise as wherever the military goes, there is either a chaplain or a religious lay leader to hold services and address the spiritual needs of the service members.
The South Pole Radio Telescope.
To go back a bit farther, you graduated from Takoma Academy in 1967 and from Columbia Union College (now Washington Adventist University) with a BA in Chemistry in 1975. After that, you joined the Navy. Why? Were you drafted?
The draft had just ended, but I needed a way to pay for medical school. My father, a former missionary in Lebanon in the late 1940s, was the first Seventh-day Adventist chaplain in the Navy, so I grew up around ships, water, Navy bases, and frequent moves. Once I discovered the Navy was also willing to pay for medical school in return for a short service obligation, it was an easy choice and one I never regretted.
Tell us a bit about your experience in the United States Navy. What perspectives or opportunities did this career give you?
I really enjoyed my more than 33 years in the Navy. I still miss it every day since retiring eight years ago. I miss working with a group of people who took pride in what they did, worked very hard at their jobs, and had a strong sense of mission. How many people do you know who believe in something so strongly that they would be willing to sacrifice their lives if required? The Navy's motto is honor, courage, and commitment. I saw that demonstrated on a daily basis.
As a physician, I didn't have to ask my patients how sick they could afford to be. The resources were available to do what needed to be done and allowed me to practice my full scope of care. I was also able to practice medicine in some very unique environments: in aircraft, aboard ships at sea, under the sea in submarines, at remote ice stations in the Arctic, in the jungles of South America, and on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in state-of-the-art medical facilities in the USA, Europe, and Asia. When I am having a bad day in Nepal, I remind myself I have been in much worse situations and at least no one is actively trying to kill me.
Some of the finest Christians I have ever known are serving in the military. It was the opportunity to work with some outstanding people that made me decide to make a career of the naval service. The military is also a wonderful mission field.
Which roles did you most enjoy in your naval career? What did you not like?
When I joined the Navy in 1978, the advertising slogan was “It's not just a job, it's an adventure.” I found it to be more than merely a slogan. If one is willing to learn, to risk personal failure, to venture out of one's comfort zone, then there are many exciting opportunities in the world.
I liked the shared sense of mission, the constant challenge of learning new things, the opportunity to experience many different cultures, the privilege of “wearing the cloth of our nation,” as well as the great people you meet and work with from both the USA and other countries around the world.
I was also fortunate to serve in many leadership positions and had the opportunity to mentor, encourage, and help others to reach their full potential, which is something I find extremely satisfying. I quickly learned leadership is not all about you. It is about nurturing people, building a team, and fulfilling the mission.
As far as things I disliked, no organization is perfect. I ran into a few disagreeable people and had a few unpleasant bosses, but I try to learn from everyone — some behaviors to emulate and others to avoid.
Did you always think you would become a doctor?
In academy I wanted to be an aerospace engineer, in college I wanted to be an archeologist. I studied anthropology and worked part-time at United Medical Laboratories in Portland, Oregon, which was started and owned by an Adventist. With that exposure I realized how much I enjoyed science and helping people, so medicine seemed a natural choice. I changed my major to chemistry and transferred from a local community college to Columbia Union College (now Washington Adventist University). I worked full-time at Washington Sanitarium & Hospital (now Washington Adventist Hospital) which was right next to the CUC campus in Takoma Park, Maryland, and went to school part-time. I started out in Central Supply and transitioned to Respiratory Therapy just as that allied health specialty was getting started. I did graduate work in biochemistry at the Catholic University of America, then went to Kansas City University of Medicine & Biosciences, which had a large Adventist student body, to study medicine. It was there I met my future wife, Susen Mattison — also a missionary kid — while attending church, and 40 years later we are serving as missionaries in Nepal.
As you look back, is there anything you wish you had done differently?
I wish I would have made more of an effort to learn foreign languages. I think this is extremely important and makes one much more effective when interacting with host nations. I lived in Spain, Japan, Italy, Bahrain, and now Nepal. Unfortunately, I only learned a few words, but not enough to become fluent.
I also wish I had kept a daily journal. I was encouraged to do this by my English professor when I first started college, but didn't think it important at the time. Now I must rely upon my memory and a few old documents when attempting to accurately recall my thoughts and feelings at the time. None of us know where God or life will take us, so I would encourage young people to spend a few minutes each day or week recording what has happened in their life.
What advice would you give to a young person now choosing a career?
It is important to do what you love. It has been said that if you do what you love, you will never have to work a day in your life. That has certainly been my experience. For most of my working life I was able to wake up in the morning excited in anticipation of the day ahead. If you try your best and strive to do something well, you don't have to worry about money, it will come automatically.
It is also important to spend less than you earn and save or invest the difference. That is the path to wealth. When you don't have to worry about money, you can focus on what is really important in life. And by wealth, I don't only mean financial assets, but more importantly health, friendships, spiritual wellbeing, knowledge, and happiness.
God has given us a most precious gift: life. We must make full use of the talents He bestowed upon us to serve Him and others. A life of service is a life fulfilled.
As a medical professional, do you have any words of wisdom about the COVID-19 crisis we are all facing? What are your views of the global responses?
That is a difficult question, especially as there is still so much we do not know or understand about the SARS-CoV-2 virus. That said, good personal hygiene will decrease your risk of contracting the disease. Effective hand washing, wearing a mask when in an environment where there is the possibility of airborne exposure to respiratory droplets or aerosols, and a healthy lifestyle (proper nutrition, adequate sleep, regular exercise) are the most effective preventative and survival measures until a vaccine is available.
I am not surprised by the global response. One size does not fit all, so each country or culture seems to be reacting culturally as one might predict. Non-democratic, authoritarian cultures where people are used to being told what to do can implement strict measures without regard to individual liberties, basic human rights, or the rule of law. Not so in other more liberal, democratic cultures where the populace must be convinced through common sense and reason to adjust their behaviors, however inconvenient.
What works in one country will not necessarily work in a country with a different-sized population, culture, and geography. So, each country or region of a country must tailor its response to the pandemic based upon its unique set of circumstances.
Unfortunately, today so many things are politicized, and the general public is bombarded with misinformation or deliberate disinformation, making it increasingly difficult to discover the truth. Different experts with equally strong credentials often disagree on many aspects of this pandemic regarding origin, appropriate preventive measures, proper public health and governmental response, and so on. I even see it in well-respected medical journals.
What I do know is that this virus is very contagious, more lethal than the traditional influenza, and it will change the world in ways we may not be able to predict. I believe it will fundamentally alter the geopolitical landscape and in poor countries, like Nepal, more people will likely die from misinformation or the response to the global pandemic than from the virus itself. Since March of this year, government statistics indicate forty people have died of COVID-19, while over 1,200 have died from suicide — a significant increase above the usual rate. Many more will die from untreated chronic diseases, as well as a delay in cancer diagnosis, because of disruption in medical supplies from lockdowns and local hoarding, as well as fear of going to a hospital where they might catch COVID-19. We have seen it in the USA and we are seeing it here. Maternal mortality in Nepal has shot up as women are afraid to come to hospitals to give birth.
Please don't misunderstand what I am saying: the SARS-CoV-2 virus is dangerous and a serious public health emergency. But we must also place it in perspective when compared to many other public health problems, including poverty.
What’s next for you and your wife? Is it time to retire?
Great question! We are planning to return to the USA for at least a few months to recharge our batteries. Much will depend upon what the pandemic does and how travel is affected. We plan to spend a few months out of every year traveling and living overseas.
I am financially secure and don't have to work, but will probably continue to work on things that interest me until the day I die. I enjoy what I do and see no reason to stop and am fortunate to have a spouse who is equally adventurous. That said, I will probably not want to work full-time or 12 months out of each year. We may also explore volunteer opportunities through Adventist Volunteer Services.
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
Photos courtesy of Dale Molé.
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