Doctor, family make mission trip to Kenya

Published 10:08 pm Friday, January 8, 2010

For most people, a working vacation would be like bringing the laptop to Hawai’i or toting the briefcase to San Diego.

Dr. Erik Lessman and his seven children made a more meaningful journey throughout the month of December, as Lessman worked at a medical clinic in Kenya.

“I worked at Tenwek Hospital, a mission hospital, the largest one in Kenya,” said Lessman. “They told me that I would be an obstetrician over there, delivering babies, so I was expecting that. Then, I get there, and they say, ‘You’re an ophthalmologist, right?’ They told me they needed someone in neonatology and a pediatrician. It’s not what I expected, but we just adjusted from there!”

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Lessman spent most of his time in the neonatal intensive care unit of the hospital in the town of Bomet in western Kenya on the cusp of the Rift Valley.

“It’s a very rural area,” Lessman said. “There are no street lights. The hospital had power and water, but none of the people around us did. The hospital only had power because they build a hydroelectric dam about 15 years ago on the river.”

The trip came about when Lessman’s wife, Rebecca, became fed up with commercialism last Christmas.

“She said, ‘Next year, we’re going someplace else!’” Lessman said. “We called one of the missions organizations, the medical missions through Samaritan’s Purse, and they said, ‘Where would you like to go?’ and I said, ‘How about Tenwek?’ I had heard of Tenwek before, through friends who had been there.

“There are four or five missionaries there, and about five or six short-term doctors, like myself, helping out.”

Lessman said he had to adjust to the diseases prevalent in the hospital that he rarely saw here in the States.

“The diseases are very different,” he said. “I had two patients die from rabies. I had lots of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and TB (tuberculosis), lots of malaria. There were other diseases, like shigelosis, that you read about, but I haven’t seen in 10 years.”

When it was time to return home, Lessman said he was encouraged when he heard his kids say that they were ready to go home, but that they would miss Kenya.

“That’s a good way to leave a country,” he said. “We went to the capital, Nairobi, so we saw the city life, and went on a safari, and we saw elephants and giraffes and ostriches and crocodiles and hippos and lions and rhinos. That was awesome!”

The family stayed in an apartment near the hospital with four bedrooms, a kitchen and a living area.

“Everyone around us lived in a 12-by-12-foot shanty with dirt floors,” he said.

Lessman said he was still coming to terms with what he saw in Kenya.

“Everything was different,” he said. “Imagine no clean water, no streets. I never saw a public school. Education was valued and prized, but their own paper said the poverty level is 50 percent. All of the definitions that we hold true are different. All of the assumptions we go by have changed.

“There are only two things that are constant in this universe: God’s character and human nature. To see the application of those in a totally different environment — I’m still processing it.”

Lessman said it took time to adjust to the environment and his roles at the hospital.

“The first week, I thought I was more of a hindrance,” he said. “Then, I learned more and did more — I think I eventually helped in the end. I think I was really helping out.

“More importantly, it was a kind of a gift for the long-term missionaries to give them a break for Christmas, let them have some time off with their families. For that reason, it was time well spent.”

Lessman said that he would recommend to other doctors to make the same kind of trip.

“Mission work is survival,” he said. “The impact is often on the doctor or volunteer to go, and in that aspect, it is money well spent. When they see that a man goes 15,000 miles to Kenya for free, to help out, people realize that we are doing this not for our own benefit, but for theirs.

“It’s one way we can tell them about Jesus Christ, and the salvation He can offer and the joy and the purpose.”

Dr. Erik Lessman and his family had an eye-opening adventure as he brought his medical talents to people in Kenya last month. It was a mission of mercy that also helped him fulfill his own purpose.