I first heard about PAACS 17 years ago during my second year of medical school. That sounds amazing, I remember thinking, “I would love to be a part of that.” I was not even sure at the time that I wanted to be a surgeon, but I knew that PAACS was a special and prescient organization.
Fast forward through medical school, residency, fellowship, four years of practice during my wife’s residency and fellowship, two children, and one year of language school later, and we arrived at Bongolo Hospital, Gabon, in 2017 under Samaritan’s Purse’s Post-Residency Program. It felt oppressively hot and humid; the air conditioning was broken at the guesthouse; our kids were immediately covered in small, itchy bites and welts. We were reassured that we had arrived during a more pleasant season, and that we could soon expect worse. On paper, Bongolo would not have seemed like the natural placement for our family and for me in particular, a fellowship-trained, craniofacial plastic surgeon at one of PAACS’ smallest and most remote locales. However, we specifically requested placement at Bongolo. We were keen to serve in a francophone environment. Kimberley’s Canadian training as a family practice anesthetist seemed to fit well into the hospital’s environment. And even though I knew that my plastic surgery skills might grow rusty, I relished the opportunity to pick up the new, broad surgical skills that PAACS’ own graduates acquire. The latter mindset is a direct result of my previous time spent at Kapsowar Hospital in Kenya with Bill Rhodes, a man I consider a mentor and who himself, though a plastic surgeon, does not limit himself to his own specialty.
This, however, necessitated a sharp learning curve, to reacquaint myself with some operations with which I once had familiarity with (e.g., hernias, laparotomies, thoracotomies) and some that I had nearly none (e.g., medullary nailing, cystoscopies, ventricular shunting). I was grateful to work with talented co-faculty and senior residents, who patiently taught me the pertinent anatomy and surgical techniques. Once in a while a plastic surgery case would come in, and I could enjoy turning the tables and become the teacher for a bit, rather than the student.
I do not wish to sugarcoat the process – adjusting to life in Gabon was difficult on many levels, including the aforementioned climate and the biting insects. Nonetheless, even during the worst of times, the interactions I enjoyed with the PAACS residents would brighten my day significantly. They were all motivated and eager to learn surgery, of course, but they were also spiritually wise and often had profound theological insights unique and apt to the African context. It is difficult to overestimate the personal and professional satisfaction that came from learning, teaching, and living side-by-side and day-by-day with all of the eight residents (hailing from seven different African countries) during my time there.
Our time with Samaritan’s Purse was ending, and it became evident that Bongolo was not where we were to stay long-term. Complicating matters were the pandemic-provoked border closure and Kimberley’s third pregnancy. We thus evacuated Gabon rather precipitously in late June and spent seven weeks with my parents near Portland, Ore., mostly in self-quarantine after Kimberley was diagnosed with Covid-19 herself. We arrived in mid-August in Taipei, Taiwan (Kimberley’s family home), where we plan to send our children to Taiwanese school for a semester while awaiting the birth of our third child. Thereafter, borders and visas permitting (which is not at all assured), we plan to move to Melbourne, Australia, in early 2021, where I will spend a year doing another plastic surgery fellowship, this time in pediatric hand and microsurgery at the Royal Children’s Hospital. Our plans thereafter do not yet exist. We have learned throughout this journey that God does not often grant us the luxury of five- or ten-year plans, but we trust Him and His goodness even though we walk down a path darkly.
We hold our Bongolo teammates in our hearts dearly, and we pray for relief for the current Bongolo PAACS faculty and provision of new faculty. I personally look forward to continuing to interact with PAACS, promoting its vision and mission, and advocating for its residents who taught me so much during my time in Gabon.