Sunday, December 27, 2015

Merry Christmas from Kenya

It is hard to believe as we have celebrated our first Christmas at Tenwek Hospital that we have been in Kenya for nearly a year. When we left last January, we had had the great opportunity of being able to celebrate with much of our family during the holiday season. We are so grateful to have had those times.

This year feels much different without the usual traditions, comforts and familiarities that mean more to us than we ever realized. The weather is certainly different than anything we have ever experienced at Christmas, though we understand it is for many of you as well. Beyond just the weather, this year, we are trying to make new traditions in a new house with new friends in a new country. While admittedly, there are parts of that experience that are very lonely, we have also been blessed to experience Christmas in a different and no less meaningful way. Even though it looks much different than what we are used to, we are still celebrating our Savior's birth. We thought it would be fun to share with you some of the Christmas events we experienced and participated in.

Irises in our front garden at Christmas

Our first obstacle was decorating our apartment here. In traveling to Kenya, we were fairly limited in the amount of luggage we could bring. And perhaps because we'd just finished celebrating Christmas, we thought we wouldn't really need or want much. So, we packed our stockings. As Christmas neared, we realized that we really wanted to enjoy Christmas decorations. Thankfully, a couple of missionaries who were leaving Tenwek gave us a small Christmas tree and some lights. From there, it's amazing how many decorations can be made and how much fun it can be to do. Between the homemade decorations and the cute ornaments we were given as gifts, our home ended up looking more Christmas-y than ever. It was also the first time our "stockings were hung by the chimney with care."

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care....
Apple-cinnamon and clay ornaments by Madison

We had the opportunity to celebrate with all of the WGM missionaries on the Kenya field, a celebration complete with great food, a cute play by the kids and plenty of Christmas songs. Although a bit strange that a Santa was walking around Tenwek Hospital and our Kenyan friends thought we were crazy, it was good for the kids to have a familiar Christmas. But, cross-cultural celebrations do highlight what is important and what is not so important.

Kids' Play - What if Jesus was Born in Bomet

Nativity Scene from Kids' Play

WGM Kenya Field Missionaries

A very new experience that will likely be a yearly tradition for us, especially when at Tenwek, was making gingerbread houses. Our only experience of gingerbread houses prior to coming to Tenwek was the kits that come complete with the pieces, icing, and decorations, those that just require assembly. Gingerbread houses here involve making, cutting, and baking the gingerbread pieces, making the icing and then assembling and decorating the houses. A pretty time-intensive and somewhat stressful but altogether enjoyable process. We were pretty happy with the outcome of our house, but definitely have some ideas for next year (perhaps a mansion, a church, a castle, or an entire village).

Works in progress

Putting on icing

Rudolph the candy-nosed reindeer

Finished product

We spent Christmas Eve day at a local orphanage where we told the Nativity story, did a craft with the kids, played outside in the beautiful weather, and, through the Tenwek orphan ministry were able to provide a new outfit for each child and a bag of some small necessities and fun gifts.

Angel craft

Madison helping with the Nativity story

Playing outside

Looking smart in their new outfits

We were also able to celebrate around the hospital with a time of caroling and spending time with the patients on Christmas Eve eve. On Christmas morning, we woke up to unwrap our gifts. Our favorites include a chess set (Bob), a sculpture (Andrea), and a hammock (Madison).

"Praying surgeon" by Madison

After experiencing the love of receiving gifts, we felt the joy of giving gifts later on Christmas day. We had the incredible opportunity to pass out gift boxes from Operation Christmas Child to each of the kids admitted to the hospital. After putting boxes together in the States in prior years, being on the side of passing them out here was quite meaningful. It also brightened up the day for a lot of kids.

Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes

Getting ready to deliver the package

Successfully delivered

Discovering the contents

Not sure what to make of all the excitement

So, while our Christmas celebration looked far different this year than it ever has, we are grateful for God's gift to us, His son Jesus and for the opportunity to experience that gift through a different lens. We were not sure what to expect with Christmas in Kenya, but we are encouraged that God's gift transcends culture and amazed by how He sometimes uses us to show that gift to others.

*All pictures were taken with permission of the orphanage or parents.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

I Was Sick and You Visited Me

Twice in the past two months, I have had the opportunity to participate in “surgery camps” along with two groups from Tenwek Hospital. Although brief, these have been great experiences and reminders of why I chose surgery as a vocation. Though I have since had a second opportunity to travel to and serve in Migori, below are some pictures and an account of my first time going to the surgical camp.

Tenwek has a long history of visitors coming to help provide compassionate care to a population in need. Over the years, there has been recognition for the need to train Kenyan doctors to not just stay at Tenwek, but to use the knowledge and skills they acquire at Tenwek to go to other places to serve. The surgery residency program that Andrea and I are involved with is one example of this training model. As Tenwek grows and the outside visitors continue to come, the Tenwek staff has also recognized the need to go to less developed areas to provide health care. Make no mistake, the population surrounding Tenwek desperately needs improved health care infrastructure. Yet, a large referral hospital exists in this community and provides incredible services.

Three hours away from Tenwek, near the Tanzanian border, there is a non-profit group, Kenya Relief, trying to improve health care options for their community.  In late September, a team from Tenwek, consisting of 3 staff members from Theatre (the British word for Operating Room), a 4th year surgical resident named Kanyi, and myself, participated in a “surgery camp”. The concept of a surgery camp is to provide care that would be otherwise unavailable to a community in need. Often, a significant number of operations are performed in a very limited amount of time. To be done well, these camps require an enormous amount of preparation on behalf of the hosts. At Kenya Relief in Migori, this was done very well. Our hosts exceeded all expectations of hospitality, which are already high in Kenya, and proved very experienced at coordinating these camps.

After a tumultuous drive on the rural, winding roads navigated brilliantly by Dr. Kanyi, we arrived on Sunday afternoon to see patients and discuss surgery with them. Within only a couple of hours, we had planned the rest of our time. In 2.5 days, we had the privilege to operate on 15 patients. Twelve of these people had a condition known as “goiter,” a very enlarged thyroid in the neck that can cause difficulties in swallowing, speech, breathing and discomfort. Despite best laid plans, we also did an emergency case of a hernia that was stuck and would have been fatal if surgical care was unavailable. Operating from 7AM to 9PM on Monday and Tuesday and until noon on Wednesday, this camp was quite a feat in logistics. It also helped tremendously that Dr. Kanyi is a well-trained and safe surgical resident, the Tenwek Theatre team worked tirelessly, effectively, and efficiently together, and we had great anesthesia by visitors from University of Michigan. Despite all of those hours of work, we were able to provide really good care for patients while still eating 3 meals a day and resting really well, a surgeon’s dream.

These relatively few operations will hopefully provide a lasting impact to those people. Our presence will hopefully allow them to breathe a little better, swallow a little easier, and their quality of life improved. In the instance of the young man with the stuck hernia that could have cost his life, it is difficult to think about if this straightforward operation was unavailable to him. Not only would his life be shortened, his family would lose their husband, father, and breadwinner. Despite doing these operations, there are hundreds of patients still in need of care. And even though we were there at the right place at right time, there are sadly multiple instances around Kenya where there is no one able to help.

It is incredible to see how Tenwek has progressed from starting a surgery residency program just under 8 years ago to sending its staff on mission trips. I was excited to play a small part at Migori, but I am even more excited to see how these surgical residents will be improving access to surgical care. There is so much potential here in Kenya, and it is a privilege to be a part of it. 

Photo credits to Curtis Coghlan from Kenya Relief. All patients consented to their photos being taken and used.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Interview with a Parker Part III: Bob

What has been your favorite thing about moving to Kenya?
Moving to Kenya has been a goal for a long time. I have really enjoyed experiencing it with family and through fresh eyes. Being here together trying to accomplish all these tasks set before us has been challenging, but very rewarding.

What is the funniest thing you’ve seen?

We have made good memories laughing together at our mistakes, our misunderstandings, and our surroundings. At language school, we had fun with the fact that our house was built for a giant. Poor Madison couldn't reach much.


What is the coolest thing you have seen?

There have been some remarkable stories that come with taking care of patients at Tenwek. The opportunity to be a small part of that has been really cool.

What is your favorite part of living at Tenwek?

I think the answers to some of my other questions also answer this question. Tenwek allows me to live out the faith that I believe. And I get to enjoy it. I'm given the privilege of taking care of patients in need. I'm able to work alongside great doctors and staff. I have my wife and daughter here alongside me. And we are allowed to be a part of something much bigger than ourselves.

Lake Nakuru National Park

What new foods do you eat?

I explored Kenyan cuisine during my previous visits here, and still appreciate it. But this time around I am eating much healthier than when I cooked my own food - no more rice with ketchup for me.

Do you miss any foods?

Cookies. And some of our favorite restaurants in Providence.

What do you do during the day?

A typical day means waking up just in time to get ready, grab some coffee, and walk up the hill to the hospital. Andrea and I arrive around 7:05 for 7AM start (any earlier and I've wasted precious sleep). Throughout the week, there are various starts to the day including walk rounds seeing patients with the other faculty and the residents, various conferences, or meetings.

My first case at Tenwek. (Photo credit: Travis Geraci)
After the morning activity, the operating rooms start around 9. Cases vary from the routine to the very strange. In only a few months, we have taken care of so many things that are technically outside of our training in the States, but we can honestly tell the patients that we are providing the best care possible. There is always room for improvement, but it is nice to stop and focus on the great things happening here.

Andrea with Blasto (chief resident)

During most days, I get to break away for lunch with Madison and sometimes Andrea. One day a week is clinic, a surreal experience, where we see outpatients who may be either pre-op, post-op, or no one else can figure out their problem. There are roughly 100 patients a day that numerous residents and interns see. Our job is to supervise and help direct care, but there is quite a bit of head scratching. Throughout the days, there are other activities that go along with working at a mission hospital - directing the interns, fundraising, building relationships, grading math homework, managing life, and hopefully working on some research projects. The pace of the clinical work is slower than the States, but all of these other things seem to make up for lost time. After all of the work is finished, there is usually enough time to either respond to emails, play a game, or enjoy dinner with family. At night, we have family devotions and process the day together. When not on call, we usually head to bed around 10 to get some sleep before starting it all again.

What do you miss most about the United States?

Family and friends. And cookies.

What do you want people to know about Kenya?

Kenya is made up of Kenyans who are like anyone else. They value family and friendship, hope to provide for their loved ones, have dreams for their children, and wish to restore health to those who are sick. But Kenya offers a unique place with so much potential. The nation is emerging and it is fun to be a part of watching it grow, hopefully into a great place. If these surgery residents go on to lead their communities, it will no doubt be an impressive place.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Interview with a Parker Part II: Andrea

What has been your favorite thing about moving to Kenya?

The sense that we had finally made it through all of the preparation and are doing what we know God has called us to do in the place He has called us to be.

Welcome sign for Tenwek 
What is the funniest thing you’ve seen?

Newspaper picture

Pretty amusing is this newspaper picture and caption which really had nothing to do with any article on the page.

What is the coolest thing you have seen?

I think it is the scenery and wildlife we have seen. Going on safari and seeing the vastness of the Mara is humbling. The animals in the wild are beautiful. And traveling over the escarpment of the Rift Valley is breathtaking. Pictures never do justice to the beauty of seeing it all in person.

On Lake Naivasha, a storm in the distance
Giraffes against the skyline

What is your favorite part of living at Tenwek?

I really enjoy working with the residents and my fellow surgeons. There is a very collaborative spirit and taking call is actually fun….most of the time. I also love the weather which is frequently sunny and mild like a warm spring day. I enjoy being able to run in the beautiful setting that the surrounding hills provides.

Two of the residents operating together

The view on my run
What new foods do you eat?

Madison talked about the types of new food we eat, but one thing that is fun about living in Kenya is the freshness of all we eat. The majority of our produce comes from local small farms and we buy directly from the people who grow the food. We even have our own garden in our back yard. There is an avocado tree out front which means we eat a lot of very fresh guacamole. And the fruits we eat are rarely imported.

Butternut squash, scallions, kale and cabbage
Loquat tree outside our house
Do you miss any foods?

I miss grilling out. In the summer, that is something we would do on a fairly regular basis, and I miss the smell and the taste of grilled food.

What do you do during the day?

Most days for me are spent in the hospital, either in the operating room or seeing patients in clinic. The days are busy. We usually start with rounds, which is seeing each of the patients in the hospital in order to assess them and make decisions for care. Then we have a meeting or teaching session. We then start cases in the operating room or go to clinic. We are usually able to make it home for lunch with Madison, which is very different from the states and a wonderful part of our lives here. The afternoon is similar to the morning. If I am not on call, I go home once cases and patient care have finished. If I am on call, sometimes the day doesn’t end until the next morning.

What do you miss most about the United States?

Family, friends and convenience. It is hard to be away from those I love. I miss the ease of conversation that comes with seeing people on a daily basis; I didn’t miss any of the details. Six months is a long time to go without spending time with or hugging those we love. We are so grateful for technology that allows us to email and even Skype sometimes.

Madison on Skype
Convenience is such a part of life in America that it is easily taken for granted. Living in Kenya takes a lot of planning, something that has taken (and is taking) time to adjust to. There’s no fast food or take out beyond Nairobi (4 hours away). While there are small markets with staples easily accessible, there are no grocery stores near. And there is little in the way of prepared foods to grab from a cupboard or freezer for dinner. Sometimes it would be nice to swing through a drive-through.

What do you want people to know about Kenya?

While not a problem specific only to Kenya, there is dire need for surgical care in Kenya as in much of the developing world. A recent Lancet report, summarized in this BBC article (, highlights the vast need. The numbers in Kenya are similar to those in Bangladesh. We are working to train surgeons who will serve the people of Kenya with the love of Jesus.

Residents and consultants at this year's spiritual retreat (Bob and I stayed at Tenwek to take call)

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Interview With a Parker Part I: Madison

It is truly hard to believe we have been here six months. On the one hand, it seems like so long ago that we said our goodbyes and boarded the plane. On the other, it seems like we should have figured out more than we have in six months. Since we came to Tenwek from language school, things have been quite busy, and it is hard to find the time to write. And to be honest, when we do have time, it's hard to know exactly what to write about in a blog. So, at our six-month anniversary here, we thought it might be fun to post a series of interviews, one with each of us, where we answer some questions about our life here at Tenwek. First off, Madison....

Safari sunset - by Madison
What has been your favorite thing about moving to Kenya?

I think my favorite thing about moving to Kenya is being able to connect with the kids and make friends. The kids here (both American and Kenyan) are all really cool.  

What is the coolest thing you have seen?

It was pretty cool when we went on our first safari seeing all the wild animals. My favorites were lions, elephants, and giraffes. I had seen those animals before but it was cool to see them roaming around in the wild.
Lion - by Madison

Elephant - by Madison

Zebra - by Madison

Madison with giraffe
Madison with lions

What is your favorite part of living at Tenwek?

It’s probably the fact that you can just go outside and play. It’s safe and I can just climb a tree whenever I want.
Madison reading in a tree

What new foods do you eat?

We eat a lot of Kenyan food, like ugali (imagine stiff mashed potatoes), sukuma wiki (boiled spinach/kale with tomatoes and onions), and chapatis (like tortillas).
Chapati, cabbage and samosa

Do you miss any foods?

I miss things like burgers and fries, which I don’t get very often.

What do you do during the day?
It is summer vacation for me, so I play outside and with my friends most of the day. Since being here, I have learned to ripstik, which is like skateboarding but with only two wheels. I have also learned to crochet. I do a lot of reading and crafts, as well.

What do you miss most about the United States?

I miss family a lot. I think that is my biggest thing. That and not being stared at everywhere I go.

What do you want people to know about Kenya?

Some people think Kenya is a barren land where people know nothing and have no modern things. While some places are very rural, without running water or electricity, where we are there are certainly cars and phones and internet. Kenya is a mix of the old and the new.