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Mercy, Siouxland doctors care for Tanzanian bus crash survivors

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By RENEE WEBB
rwebb@catholiglobe.org

In recent weeks, a modern-day good Samaritan story unfolded in a community half a world away and in Sioux City.

Thanks to the good works of missionaries from the area, Mercy Medical Center-Sioux City and Siouxland doctors, three survivors of a fatal bus crash in Tanzania are thriving.

“It’s a tale with many twists and turns,” described Dr. Steve Meyer, an orthopedic surgeon and board president of Siouxland Tanzania Educational Medical Ministries (STEMM), who has led countless mission trips to the Eastern Africa country. It’s also a story, he stressed, with many miracles and the workings of the Holy Spirit.

During a recent STEMM mission trip to Tanzania, seven of the group’s 14 members had planned to go on a safari one day.

“Because they were an hour-and-a-half late, they came across a horrific, tragic crash where a school bus went off of a cliff down into a ravine and pretty much instantaneously killed 32 seventh-grade students, two teachers and the driver,” described Meyer, senior partner at CNOS who does surgeries at Mercy and Dunes Surgical Hospital. “Our team leapt out of their safari vehicle and provided triage.”

Survivors found

Shockingly, despite the devastation in the bus, he said they were able to find three children who still had heartbeats. The STEMM volunteers offered initial care at the scene before the three were sent to the hospital. Miraculously they all survived.

The next day the STEMM volunteers went to see the children, but security was very tight. The doctor explained that “miraculously, a well-dressed Tanzanian recognized them” as having been the ones to save the children. He happened to be the minister of health and took them to see the children.

“The children were really broken up; between the three of them they had 17 fractures,” Meyer explained. “They felt an incredible spiritual and emotional bond with these three kids but looking at the surroundings of the hospital, they were deeply saddened by what would most likely happen to them.”

One child had a terrible spine fracture and paralysis, one had an unrecognized neck fracture and another had a fracture of the femur, thigh bone.

That night, three of the seven who had done the triage approached Meyer’s wife about what could be done to help the children. Then, they came to Meyer about bringing them to America. While he liked the idea, figuring out how to do it was another thing.

Godly conviction

“Godly conviction is a difficult thing to stand in front of,” the doctor noted. “We all were convinced that we had been put in this place and time providentially. I personally have a saying that can get me into trouble a bit – ‘just say yes.’ When the Holy Spirit calls you, you just say yes and let God do the heavy lifting. I made a commitment at that point to try to get those kids to America.”

Meyer shared his ideas with Lazaro Nyalandu, another of STEMMs co-founders. As a member of the Tanzania parliament, he was able to have Meyer meet with the nation’s vice president prior to a national memorial service being held to mark the tragedy. The 35 caskets were there as 100,000 people offered condolences. During the service, the Tanzanian vice president asked the crowd to recognize the American heroes who saved the children. She thanked them from the bottom of her heart for their promise to take them back to America to take care of their terrible injuries.

“At that point, the gauntlet had been let down because in front of 100,000 people and all of East African media, she had conveyed a promise that was never made,” he explained.

That’s when Meyer got to work to make it happen. He called Dr. Steve Joyce, a chief primary care officer at Mercy Medical Center who is a personal friend of Meyer and is a former STEMM board member, to see if the hospital could take this on.

A day later he found out that Mercy definitely was onboard with providing the medical care.

While most hospitals around the country are undergoing difficult financial times, Joyce said, “A decision was made at the administrative level to provide free health care for these children regardless of financial constraints. We have a strong tradition of charity and charitable giving in our community. We are proud of that legacy and we want to continue that legacy.”

With the medical care a go, then came the difficult task of lining up passports, visas and transportation. The next 60 hours, Joyce noted, was spent nonstop on the phone with the embassy, state department and politicians.

In the end, they couldn’t secure a military medical evacuation, but Congressman Steve King reached out to Samaritan’s Purse. This international humanitarian organization, headed by Rev. Franklin Graham, agreed to send a modified DC-10 cargo plane to bring the three children to America.

Miracles abound

The miracles kept coming. They secured passports and visas for the children – Doreen, Sadia and Wilson – and their mothers within 48 hours. They departed Tanzania on May 13, arriving in America in Charlotte, N.C. on May 14. The patients arrived in Sioux City on May 15. Doreen arrived at the hospital at 2 p.m. and was in surgery by 5 p.m. for an eight-hour surgery, returning for a second round on May 18. The other two had a surgeries on May 16 and 17.

“I really do believe the hand of God was in this entire story and continues to be at every step along the way,” said Meyer, who said the fractures and surgeries were very difficult. “We made the deliberate decision to pray out loud before every surgery. It was as if every surgery was God-directed and they all turned out beyond expectation.”

Not only did the hospital offer its services free of charge, but so did the team of surgeons including Meyer, Dr. Daniel Kensinger of CNOS who did the majority of the long-bone fractures, Dr. Jeff Dean who did surgery on Doreen’s jaw and Dr. Quentin Durward who assisted with putting Doreen’s spine back together. Joyce, an internist and pediatrician who provided the medical care for the children, and Dr. Lawrence Votz, who oversees Mercy’s surgery department, have overseen the patients’ medical and surgical needs. Dr. Meyer also credited Mercy’s CEO, Jim FitzPatrick for “championing this cause” along with other Mercy staff.

Not just business

“As a faith-based healthcare organization, Mercy understands that it’s not just a business, it’s about caring for people and being a witness. When you step back and look at it, it makes no sense to do this from the world’s standpoint,” Meyer said. “There are kids dying in Third World countries in accidents every day. Why would we take these three? But there is a reason why God wanted it to happen. I think it’s to tell people to think about the fact that when the world says no and God says yes, amazing things happen.”

Joyce volunteered his personal time because he knew they would need a pediatrician to help oversee their care; however, the doctor stressed he is just one part of the team.

“I felt it was my duty and my obligation to help,” said the parishioner at Blessed Sacrament Church in Sioux City. “And as I go through this, it has become a privilege to help care for these children, more than a duty or obligation. They are children who have been transplanted half a world away to a culture that they do not know, to a language they do speak but not fluently. They need stability and consistency and I am hoping to provide that.”

Joyce emphasized as Christians, we are called to serve the underserved both personally and professionally.

“Our faith calls us to do that,” he said. “These children are the most underserved in the world with Tanzania being one of the poorest countries in the world and having very little access to quality healthcare like we do here.”

Joyce called this experience “life-changing” and a bit surreal.

“This is like something you read about in the paper or online that somebody else did,” he explained. “Here we are in Sioux City, having the privilege to help care for these children in a way that they would never had in Tanzania. They have changed my life in ways that are unimaginable.”

“It’s a story that could only happen here,” added Meyer, who said he doesn’t believe this would have happened in a big city or with a huge private hospital chain. “It’s all about people caring for other people and loving their neighbors.”

For those interested in helping the children, STEMM is setting up a foundation so they can obtain their education. As a memorial to the children who died in the crash, STEMM is also establishing a foundation to support education in multiple ways throughout Tanzania. Donations may be made at www.stemm.org.

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