The Ear: A Physician Couple Living an Amazing Mission


(Spectrumbot) #1

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

(Joselito Coo) #2

Curious. In the event that, for one reason or another, Drs Olen and Danae Netteburg were forced to leave Chad and the flow of short-term expat volunteers were to abruptly cease, what would be the effect of this on the fine work they’ve started? Would there be enough trained national workers to take over most if not all clinic/hospital and nursing school functions without interruption? Or, would their unforeseen departure mean - that’s it? Everything stops right there.


(Elaine Nelson) #3

I’m also concerned for the children, who is caring for them while both parents work full time? How long will they be able to stay without adequate educational for them?


(Thomas J Zwemer) #4

What a story! It is one thing to sing-“All are precious in His sight”, quite another to do something about it. Tom Z


(Elmer Cupino) #5

At some point in time, sooner than not, the best interest of your children will become greater than the best interest of your being missionaries. Then the goal of your mission will be to train nationals to take over your roles or your time spent would be all for naught.

Until then, I have nothing for you folks but admiration. I am in awe.


(Cherilyn Clough) #6

What a beautiful sweet gift this family is giving to Chad and God! May God protect your babies and you and may His Spirit touch all who come through your hospital! I read your blog and I plan to send some money for baby milk. God bless you!


(jeremy) #7

i think this is the most amazing story i’ve read in a long time…


(Elaine Nelson) #8

There are other stories just as courageous. In the latest AARP magazine, the story of an American nurse who served in Liberia with her husband who sold their home and abandoned the security of their home forlives of service in virtual poverty.

She contracted Ebola and began suffering internal bleeding, could no longer move, but was miraculously saved by the experimental antiviral serum, ZMap. There was only enough for one person and was the first person to receive it. Still declining. she was airlifted to Emory Unversity and gradually regained her strength. She is willing to return there to help with other patients


(Rheticus) #9

I agree - this is one of those stories where I have mixed reactions.

My eldest daughter spent 2 years in Malawi in the Peace Corps, when the local economy simply could not produce enough teachers - she certainly made a difference to the students and teachers at the high school where she taught. But was it a lasting impact to the benefit of the whole society? - I would estimate yes, because she left behind healthy more educated people when she left.

Does a hospital like the one being described here? Perhaps. To the extent it returns some sick people to productivity - Yes. If it stops people from dying and instead makes them a burden on their community - No.

The SdA have an unhealthy fascination with the health work. In countries like Malawi, the society as a whole has benefited more from the roads put in by the uranium mining companies and from the cell phone infrastructure put in by the entrepreneurs and from the anti-AIDS campaigners than it has from medical mission work.

Fixing the government, building roads, create cell phone infrastructure, enabling the food production and construction trades, teaching teachers, teaching medical people, … doing medicine should come after these if you really want to raise the average lifespan and reduce the total suffering.


(Joselito Coo) #10

Based on the majority of responses here so far, focusing on the personal sacrifices of the missionary family, it’s really difficult to take an objective look at the impact of SDA medical missions in developing countries: to what extent the recipients of our aid are really being helped and if the assistance will be sustainable in the long run. I’ve been there. Done that. In 2013, my wife and I returned home from my fourth (her first) mission assignment in Africa. We were invited to join a one-week “Welcome Home” missions institute held in Andrews U. Among the returned home participants were three DMA families, one a dentist and two physician couples, all LLU alum. Many of the stories they shared were for our own consumption only. Wish though that concerned individuals - members of the GC secretariat in particular and supporters of our foreign mission initiatives - were there so that corrective measures might be put in place based on the excellent suggestions that were aired but with no one else but us to listen.


(Kim Green) #11

Beautiful to see those who truly “Walk the Christian walk”.


(Joselito Coo) #12

Speaking of sacrifices those outside the church have made and are making, we can’t even begin to compare that with the stories we’ve already heard from regular SDA mission appointees. The latter, by and large, have been better taken care of and provided for by the GC.


(Winona Winkler Wendth) #13

This is what being Christian is all about (although, eventually, someone will have to come in with books . . . ). So: Let’s see now—multi-million dollar megatrons, or this? Arguing over multipliers of three and seven, debating hair-splitting interpretations of the Book of Hebrews, re-reading Ellen White’s letters to recalcitrant parishioners, or . . . doing what Jesus would (and told us to) do ?


(Winona Winkler Wendth) #14

These are very good, rational points. However, we don’t know what kind of education is taking place, or the longevity of that. It’s true that SdAs do privilege health care, but, typically, literacy comes along (we are known as the Protestant Jesuits), with that—and must, if the heath workers train. Long ago, when we were supporting who our parents and grandparents referred as "The Old China/India/Japan Hands,"before WWII, we also had respectful, effective relationships with national leadership that did affect local conditions. A complicating factor are countries in Africa, where leadership may not be consistent, effective, or reliable. The problem of suffering is a complex one, as well, and to what degree a person dedicates his or her life to the relief of suffering in the short term against the long-term payoffs of simply allowing someone to hurt is a question whose answer/s have had thousands of gallons of ink spilled on them. Knowing where the line is between binding a wound and setting up a clinic is not easy.


(Joselito Coo) #15

What we don’t know we can find out from those who do, if we’re persistent enough, can’t we? What this conversation tells me though is that our popular imagination of the reality on the ground will continue to be shaped for years to come by mission stories we expect those we send out to tell us.


(Joselito Coo) #16

Most families opt to hire nannies as well as two others, a cook and one to do housework. As to education, expat children are typically homeschooled until they’re old enough to be sent away to board either at Maxwell Academy in Kenya or one in the States close to their grandparents.


(Winona Winkler Wendth) #17

Yes, of course. And communications/s move in two directions (multiple directions, now that we have the internet). For years, missionaries told us what they believed we wanted to hear, so yes, those narratives are a bit suspect, however inspiriting. Nineteenth and early 20th century mission narratives have taken their own structures; this is less likely to happen with 21st century communication strategies, though. And I’m sure they had family help in the way of house and childcare—Americans don’t think of that, automatically. The children are not likely to fall behind in basic computation skills and literacy, either; probably, their attention spans are longer than those of their counterparts here. The challenge for the children will be re/entry into the contemporary, developed world, and they are undoubtedly better suited for that via a European culture, not an American one.


(Elaine Nelson) #18

I’ve known some of those children and when they finally return to the states there is difficulty in mingling with the U.S. students. Some are spoiled by having had a nanny take care of everything for them and haven’t learned personal responsibility.


(Winona Winkler Wendth) #19

It’s not the nannies who are the problem—many of those children grow up fully responsible. It’s the condescending sense of responsibility that is more of an issue, a kind of noblesse oblige, that challenges them. “The Great White Father” missionary model disappeared after a while, but many returned missionary families up until the early sixties showed a sense of privilege—and the personal and corporate responsibility along with it.


(Joselito Coo) #20

Re-integration of parents in U.S. society, especially if they are medical professionals, though they may come home each year for their continuing medical education, is never easy. Sad that many of them have to adjust their standard of care - by lowering it - when practicing their profession in a poor country.

‘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’

"… 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…

Our hospital lacks a lot of pretty standard stuff, like X-ray and basic laboratory testing.

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.

Clean, drinking water and water that’s fit for handwashing, bathing and cooking should be standard stuff, not only for hospital use but for the community as well, don’t you think? I’m guessing that more than half of the patients the doctors see and that they admit to the hospital suffer from gastrointestinal infections and parasitism consequent to ingesting or contact with “muddy” water. SDA hospitals in Africa have x-ray equipment that have short lifespans and, with no electricity, had them functioning only briefly and erratically. While there’s some basic laboratory tests that can be done, even the person on the street knows the diagnosis and treatment will all come down to either: malaria and typhoid/cholera or typhoid/cholera and malaria.