Saturday, November 19, 2016

My Neighbor, Dr. Martin Salia

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends. 
John 15:13.


Dr. Martin Salia, a surgeon who gave his life in the service others, has been an inspiration to me. Two years ago, Martin contracted Ebola while working in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, his home country. He ultimately lost that battle to the devastating disease that wreaked havoc on his country as most of the world sat idly by. Over the last couple of years, I have been processing this while mourning the loss of a hero, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts.


Dr. Martin Salia at the United Methodist Church's Kissy Hospital
outside Freetown, Sierra Leone
Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS
I met Martin in 2007, while I was living in Kenya at Tenwek Hospital. He was here for a brief time to learn more about thoracic surgery, through the PAACS (Pan African Academy of Christian Surgeons) training program. We lived next door to one another in the guesthouse. At the time, Martin was an enthusiastic surgical resident, dedicated to learning the craft so he could help the people of Sierra Leone. I was a medical student not quite sure about my path. As I learned more about the role of surgery in helping communities in need, Martin’s commitment struck me. He was among several devoted doctors who, because of their faith, wanted to bring surgical care and expertise to neglected areas across Africa. He told me about the lack of surgeons in Sierra Leone and the difficulties faced while working there. But despite those difficulties, Martin exuded hope and had a passion to selflessly serve in similar places. Even after fulfilling his obligation to PAACS (serving for 5 years after residency in an underserved setting) and becoming a naturalized US citizen, Martin continued to serve in Sierra Leone, even becoming the chief medical officer of his hospital. It was well known in his country that Martin took a substantial decrease in pay to work alongside the people he felt a calling to care for. During the Ebola crisis, Martin continued to work and care for his patients, leading to his untimely death.


Martin doing an operation at Kissy Hospital
Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS
Part of my understanding of how surgery could be used to give hope to the vulnerable was through Martin. There are an estimated 56 million people in Africa currently in need of surgical services. More doctors need more training to become surgeons. And beyond their surgical training and the care they provide to patients, these surgeons become leaders in their communities. Those like Martin who are willing to follow the command to serve the least of these inspired me to become a surgeon. Martin was not only intelligent and gifted, he was dedicated to service. He could have used his gifts for his own ambitions, but he did not. It humbles and encourages me to know there are those who would give up their wealth, their esteem, and even their lives in the service of others. I am so grateful that here at Tenwek, we have the privilege of working alongside others who have a faith that commands them to serve. Shortly after Martin’s time here, a surgical residency program was started. Soon, Tenwek will have graduated ten surgeons who, like Martin, will serve in areas with great need. Our residents have a hunger for knowledge and skills so they can provide care in a capable and compassionate way, just like he did. I can think of no better way to invest in the infrastructure of a community than to invest in these surgeon leaders. Even though it feels like Martin’s life was cut too short, he represents the beauty and the fruit of this investment.

As followers of Christ, we are exhorted to love our neighbors. Martin was literally my neighbor for a brief time. His love and his willingness to serve others demonstrated to me how he was inspired by faith to care for his neighbors. I am thankful to have known Martin, and that in one of the most formative times of my life our paths crossed. He helped me choose this atypical, but rewarding path. I will continue to be inspired by him as I know that he finished the race that he ran so well.