Olen and Danae Netteburg defy belief — until you recall the Incarnation. Then you remember that it is Christ’s way, after all, to go into the far, far country in order to meet overwhelming human need.
Are you ready to forgo Nordstrom and Cineplex for. . . Chad?
The Netteburgs both earned MDs at Loma Linda. Olen graduated from Andrews and Danae from Southern Adventist University. Now they are running the Bere Adventist Hospital in Africa, a 100-bed facility that is miles from a paved road and literally off the grid when it comes to electricity.
With their children — the oldest is five — they live in a place far from the options and amenities people in the West enjoy. For entertainment, the children can take a “muddy” swim in a river five kilometers away, and a bit farther on there’s another river with hippos in it. Monkeys inhabit a forest 10 kilometers away. On the food front, you choose mostly between rice and beans or beans and rice, although mangoes and guavas do come into play. As for vegetables it may be adequate to note that Olen calls Danae’s garden (despite some small successes) a “hospice for plants.”
Both these young physicians had largely rural childhoods and both grew up with parents who displayed and encouraged a deep connection with the church. Now they live 50 feet from the hospital, sustained by family visits or, in the case of Danae’s father, a decision not just to visit but also to join them as the facility’s third physician. The Bible gives them strength, and also persons who have exemplified its vision. (“I think my two biggest heroes are my dad and Dick Hart [current president of Loma Linda University], in that order,” says Olen.)
Here is further perspective on their work and circumstances in Chad:
Question: While you were in college at Andrews, Olen, you kayaked across Lake Michigan. Now you and Danae are practicing medicine in a remote part of Chad. Where did the penchant for adventure — for risk — come from? What, do you think, are some clues from your life story?
Answer: Is it a penchant for adventure or just bad decision-making and a lack of good judgment? Well, what I think of when this comes up is a handwritten letter my grandmother wrote me when she found out about the kayak trip (which was after the fact). She delineated all the reasons the trip was a terrible idea, both physically and spiritually, since I was risking my life before I had a chance to use the spiritual gifts God had allotted me.
The irony is that she was certainly the pot calling the kettle black, since my grandmother was one of the biggest risk-takers I know, and probably would have kayaked across the lake herself had she thought of it at my age! She was a missionary in Iraq and Lebanon in the 1940s-1960s and raised me on her crazy stories! So I guess I’d blame my genetic material.
Question: Describe your circumstances at Bere Adventist Hospital — it’s location, equipment, what sorts of patients you serve?
Answer: We have a 100-bed hospital. We're located about 42 kilometers off the paved road and serve a region of a million people, none of whom have running water or electricity. At one point or another in the last decade, Chad has been named the most corrupt country in the world, the worst place in the world to be a woman, the worst place in the world for a child to fall ill, the country with the shortest life expectancy, the worst maternal mortality rate, the worst neonatal mortality rate and the worst under-five mortality rate. Only 10% of Chadians are literate, 85% live hand-to-mouth as farmers and 65% live on less than a dollar a day. We really feel we’re serving “the least of these.”
Our hospital lacks a lot of pretty standard stuff, like X-ray and basic laboratory testing. And there are always cultural challenges, not to mention the fact that nobody speaks English. But we’re slowly surrounding ourselves with hospital staff we can trust and our local employees know how to do a lot with the little they're given. We've tried to take the upward momentum the hospital already had before our arrival and just continue in the same direction. In the four years since our arrival, we've seen patients and surgeries double, income triple and square footage triple (that’s a lot of construction). We've had patients referred to us from the national referral hospital, which is ironic, and patients from all the surrounding countries. Many foreigners living in the capital ride the 10-12 hours on the bus to get here. In fact, we’ve had patients from all continents but Antarctica!
Question: In a place as poor as rural Chad, how is the hospital able to manage financially?
Answer: We are grateful to be a part of Adventist Health International’s network of hospitals and clinics worldwide. They provide invaluable management services with advice, volunteers, containers of materials and a means for our partners to donate in a tax-deductible way. (They are at AHIGlobal.org.) AHI helps us figure out how to trim the fat and run on a tight budget, as well as what parts of a hospital make money and what aspects lose. They are indispensable. As a hospital, we are now paying all our bills, paying off debts, putting money in the bank and investing, all based solely on patients paying their medical expenses. AHI and donor money never goes to ongoing expenses, just to short-term projects intended to develop and create independence, pride and evangelistic opportunities. So back to your question, how are we managing to pay bills for decent medical care in one of the world’s poorest countries? Honestly, I have no clue. Ask God.
Question: I saw an amazing post on your blog, which began: “It’s 3 a.m.” Then, Olen, you said that both you and Danae were still awake — “and have been all day,” which I took to mean since the previous morning. One or the other of you, as you said, had “been in the hospital all day.” In another post I saw that in your “entire district, there is no plumbing or electricity.” I also read that you are “deciding to move forward in faith on our nursing school.” Let me direct my question to you, Danae: How is all this even possible?
Answer: This was a very rare occasion — rare for both of us to be working that hard. It’s usually either or neither in the night. We work hard when we have to, but also enjoy our down time.
As for electricity, we have a generator at our hospital that now runs 24/7. When we first came here it only ran during the day when we were doing surgeries. Plumbing? That’s also a big challenge at our hospital. We tried to put in squat toilets that were semi-flushing, but they kept getting clogged because people would put plastic and sticks down them. So we had to simplify by making a much shorter pipe to the septic tank.
We did have a master plumber volunteer here until this past March, but then he was out with back surgery and is now home in America permanently. So now if something breaks, it’s likely my dad or Olen who’s going to fix it! Whether it’s medical or non-medical, you definitely step out of your comfort zone and do things you weren’t trained to do. Somebody’s gotta do it!
Even though we have many challenges here, most of them not medical, we want to step out in faith and make it more challenging by starting our nursing school. We have yet to finish the buildings for our nursing school, but we believe they will get done soon.
Question: You gain so much in unique experience. But you also miss what many people your age enjoy in their fancier, Western surroundings. What are the main rewards of your work? How, Olen, do you cope with what others might see as the great sacrifice you are making?
Answer: We were both fortunate enough to grow up in rural families who didn’t lack and didn’t have excess. So we never felt the loss of the fanciness. And we both have lived overseas before. It’s true we could earn much more money and advance our careers in America, but that’s never been something all that interesting to us. And with email (albeit extremely slow) and cellphones (even out here!) and annual vacation, we are able to stay in touch with family and friends in ways past generations of missionaries couldn’t. I think what Danae misses most is Taco Bell! The only major sacrifice we really make is raising our kids in a place where diseases like malaria kill 21% of children before their fifth birthday. Every time our kids get sick (my one-year-old daughter, Addison, has malaria as I write), it reminds us we’re making sacrifices. But honestly, though we work hard, we still have time for family, we still have a roof over our heads and food on our table, and we know we are exactly where God wants us to be right now. What more could we ask for? That, and our medical cases are insanely cool. Practicing medicine in America will be extremely boring after this.
Question: Being in so remote a part of Africa, do you feel you have support, or are you hung out there to dry?
Answer: We are incredibly fortunate to have supportive family and friends. In fact, I’ve recruited out my father-in-law to be the general surgeon here and my uncle to be the surgeon at Moundou Adventist Surgical Center two hours away. Both of my sisters have visited and my parents come often (although, let’s be honest, they’re just coming for the grandkids). We’ve also had many friends come to visit. As I said, internet (even slow internet) makes it possible for us to communicate with our supporters on Facebook and via email, as well as our blog, which we maintain at missionarydoctors.blogspot.com. We have so many people praying for us daily around the world. I remember when Zane had seizures with malaria (he’s always the sickest whenever he gets malaria), I realized at one point we had so many supporters across the globe that there was always somebody praying for my little boy. And the volunteers! We’ve had over a hundred volunteers in our four years, ranging from a week or two to multiple years. We love our volunteers, although even that can be exhausting at times, just getting them set up and running with a rewarding task they are capable of doing.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6554