Tanzania Surgical Safari 2010: To Tanganyika and Back Again

I'll be honest, life's been a bit crazy lately and the impending Tanzania (TZ) trip wasn't helping much in that category.  For the past six months I had been struggling with bureaucracies to get a Tanzanian medical license despite having spent a lot of money.  I was tired enough that the prospect of not getting my license and having to cancel the trip actually had a bit of appeal.  But, sure enough, my medical license was approved with just a bit of time to spare.  Then there was packing. 

The week leading into the expedition I was away at a much needed retreat in Mombasa and could not be involved in packing whatsoever.  As I left for Mombasa, I knew we were critically low on viscoelastic (a clear gel needed for eye surgery which had been on order for 6 months and still hadn't arrived!) and our portable surgical microscope was broken.  Both are essential.  I was consciously trying to trust God and the eye staff, but the OCD devil in me sure wasn't happy.  He was saying, "Think of the 40+ person team and hundreds of patients in TZ depending on you.  Think of the thousands of dollars invested.  All it takes is one thing missing (viscoelastic, microscope, generator, blown microscope bulb with no spare, wrong power cord...) to ruin the mission." 

No worries.  Even if I wasn't feeling particularly up to going on a surgical expedition, apparently God was interested in making it happen.  The eye staff seamlessly packed without me, and honestly, they did a much better job than I could have done.  During my week away in Mombasa, a visitor from the USA brought out the part needed to fix the microscope, and, although 6 months late, we finally received our order of 1,000 vials of viscoelastic.  Wow.  So off we left for Nairobi packed into the Jolly Green Giant (perhaps her max load to date) to spend the night near the airport.

We were up at 5:00 am to catch our Cesana Caravan from Wilson Airport.

After a small hassle from the customs folks about our strange, expensive-looking eye equipment, we were in the air with AIM AIR.

After one refueling stop and 5+ hours in the sky, we officially reached the "back forty" of TZ.  Our airstrip was on the edge of Lake Tanganyika (world's longest lake) and at the foot of the Mahale Mountains which form the boundary of Mahale National Park, one of the more remote national parks in the world.  Once dropped off on its shores by airplane or boat, it is accessible only on foot. 

Above: the Tenwek Eye Unit team at Mahale airstrip with our fancy new scrubs.  Thanks Ben!

We were then transported to the local government health center by helicopter.  Our equipment had to go by boat.

As expected, the helicopter got the local kids (and me) worked-up into a frenzy.

The obligatory Obama twins were spotted once again, just as they were upon our landing in Akot, Sudan earlier this year (below).  

This whole trip was organized by Hope of the Nations Bible College in Kigoma, TZ.  They stopped classes for the week and boated all the students and faculty down the lake to assist us in caring for the patients physically and spiritually.  They also held kids' clubs and went into the community to mobilize the blind and share the good news of Jesus Christ, The Hope of the Nations.  Below are some of the the key organizers and docs involved. 


(Left to Right: me; Dr. Norbert - medical director of the health center who invited us; Dr. Kabadi - Tanzanian ophthalmologist and friend of Dr. Norbert, Dr. Steve Anderson - ophthalmologist joining us all the way from Indonesia; Dr. Len Ramsey - medical doc and the chopper pilot with Hope of the Nations! 
First, we settled into our abodes for the week.  My bed was strategically placed under the lake front window to absorb in sponge-like fashion as much rainfall as possible during the night storms coming off the lake.

Next, we screened the patients already waiting for us, and we got the OR up and running.  Our very first case that evening was on our own team member who gashed his hand upon arrival by falling into the lake onto sharp rocks.  Thankfully, we had a microscope for his tendon repair.  Other than some numbness of the pinky, he's got full function of the digit despite having me for his hand surgeon using ophthalmic suture.


Below: patients on post-operative day #1waiting to have their patches removed.  This is always a special time.


We had several patients originating from the other side of Lake Tanganyika (Democratic Republic of Congo, aka former Zaire).  They tended to be on the smaller size as you can see from the picture below.   

An Mzee quietly enjoying his first look around in a long time. 

This lady obviously has a huge goiter, but also notice the white pupils.  Those are blinding cataracts.  We did surgery on one eye with great success, but when she heard that her doctor loved Jesus, she was a bit upset.  She was Muslim and couldn't believe someone who loved Jesus would do something like that for her.  She did get over her perplexity and had her other eye done at the end of the week.  She was seeing 20/25 when she left!  She begged us to remove her goiter, but obviously, this was not the setting to attempt such a feat.  

Below is another woman who was accompanied by her daughter and granddaughter.  She left one happy grandma. 

This is the last day's post-ops.  They were a particularly fun group.

All in all, we saw over 400 patients.  Many were given their sight back just with simple glasses that could not otherwise be obtained easily in this area, but seventy eyes needed surgery (mostly cataracts) in order to see again.  Many heard about Jesus for the first time in this mostly Muslim area, and many professions of faith were made.  Ten were baptized publicly on the shore of their village on the last two days of the outreach.  God was touching the lives of these folks indeed.  

I, too, was deeply refreshed during the quiet morning hours spending time in prayer and God's Word at the lake's edge.  God needed me to have my vision for life and ministry renewed as well.  God didn't need me to go on the trip.  I needed to be on the trip.


As I sailed away from this little peninsula for the airstrip, it was evident that God had been at work in me and through me, despite of me.  God is good.  Thanks for all of your prayers.   


Anonymous said...

I needed to hear that right now too. Thanks.

Christina said...

Praising God with you! And praying that He continues to renew and restore your family.

Anonymous said...

Praising God for His faithfulness once again...thanks for being willing to be used by Him.

Jamie Paauw said...

Awesome stuff John. Thx for serving His Kingdom. Great talking to you yesterday! Love the Obama twins and the Jesus bunny matatu.

Unknown said...

Hey, John, priase God that everything turned out so well in TZ. Unbelievable.
Matthew Young

Anonymous said...

Hey John,

Great to see how the Lord is using you!! Awesome...


Sarah Lorenz said...

Yea! Great account of the trip. Thanks for sharing.

susan said...

God is good...all the time. You and the rest of the McCropders are a blessing to so many. Thanks for allowing God to use you in such a way.

Anonymous said...

Thinking about and praying for you often. Great to hear about such significant results!


Tanzania Safari said...

Wow, just wow. What an amazing post.

I am firstly glad that you got there, and then thankful for your great work with helping the people of Tanzania, the world needs more people like your team.

Keep up the amazing work.