PLATTSBURGH The Spronk family recently experienced a feeling akin to stepping out of C.S. Lewis's famous wardrobe from his book "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
On Aug. 17, Dr. Wayne Spronk, an internal medicine physician at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, his wife Suzanne and their three young children, Pascal, Emma, and Andre, returned to their Plattsburgh home after a successful six month missions trip to Gabon, Africa. They found everything in Plattsburgh about the same as when they left, but like Lucy and her siblings returning home from Narnia, they felt they had lived a lifetime of strange and unusual experiences and adventures while they were gone.
When the Spronk's left Plattsburgh last February, they were not chasing adventure, but seeking an opportunity to love others and live out the golden rule. While in Gabon, Wayne volunteered at the Bongolo Hospital of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA), where most of the staff and patients speak only French and Nzebi. This fact was a challenge for Wayne as was the shortage or complete lack of many of the supplies, technology, and medications doctors take for granted in the United States. Wayne knew exactly what to expect though, as this was his third medical missions trip to the hospital.
Waynes patients exhibited a gamut of medical problems, but about 75 percent of his inhospital patients had full-blown Tuberculosis (TB) and 50 percent of those had AIDS.
These patients had to remain in the hospital for at least 8 weeks to prevent drug resistant TB and so I got to know them well, he explained, and I have so many stories about them. Many of the TB patients were so far along in their disease that they were sure they were coming to the hospital to die, but many returned home with restored health.
On an average of three times weekly Wayne had the duty of breaking the news to a patient that they had AIDS. He always encouraged them to seek anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs in Liberville, as they were not yet available at the Bongolo Hospital. Wayne was pleased to witness much progress in the negotiations with the government toward opening a clinic at the Bongolo Hospital that would administer the desperately needed ARVs.
Being able to work alongside the hospital staff and being part of their team was very rewarding, Wayne said. He also found it especially rewarding when seriously ill patients were able to realize that they were not beyond God's love. Africa is a lot like America in that people sometimes interpret sickness as a curse, Wayne explained. People might be abandoned by family and friends particularly if they have AIDS, and consequently feel abandoned by God as well. Part of the hospital ministry was to tell these patients that God loves them despite their medical illness. It encouraged me to see people putting their hope in God and finding encouragement and drawing strength from that relationship. It was inspiring and humbling to see how well they coped in these very difficult situations.
While Wayne was involved in full-time service, Suzanne and the children focused on their homeschooling, but made sure to schedule time to reach out to the Gabonese as well. Suzanne taught a weekly English class to the hospital staff. She and her children would visit the pediatric ward on a weekly basis as well.
I would start out by reading the children a Bible story in French, Suzanne said, and then we would give them pictures about the story to color and sometimes do a related craft. They also played soccer with the children.
In addition, the Spronks reached out to the visiting volunteer surgeons and medical students. They would invite them for dinner and an evening of fellowship. Suzanne never neglected to ask the guests if there was anything they could teach her children, and thus began many interesting and adventurous lessons and field trips. A favorite lesson was given by a British Orthopedic Dr. who was also an expert on butterflies. He took the children into the jungle and got them started on their own butterfly collections.
The most valuable lesson they learned though was learning a life of service and giving to the poor, Suzanne said.
The Spronks were not the only people from Plattsburgh reaching out to the Gabonese at the Bongolo hospital. They were joined by a teen friend from their church in Plattsburgh. Nadine Noelting, now a senior at Plattsburgh High, lived with the Spronks for the month of July.
I just really wanted to see what it was like to be a missionary because becoming a medical missionary is something I feel called to do, she said.
During her stay Nadine volunteered at the hospital and also helped Suzanne and her children with their weekly visits to the pediatric ward.
Although she found traveling to Gabon and back by herself frightening, especially the lay overs in Muslim countries, her time in Gabon made it all worthwhile. Her favorite experience was carrying a newly born infant to the maternity ward after witnessing it's birth via C-section.
While I was carrying it, it opened it's eyes for the first time. It was pretty cool, she said.
The Spronks and Nadine expressed gratitude to everyone who helped make their missions trip possible through financial support, prayers, and letters.
All those who are interested in hearing more about their missions trip and the Gabonese people they came to love are welcome to come hear them share their stories at the 10 am. North Country Alliance Church service on Sunday Sept. 23. The church is located on 7 Northern Avenue on the former Plattsburgh Air Base, and can be reached by calling 324-5482.