Tenwek Trip

I don’t know how it’s been two years since we finished training and moved from Minnesota to begin “real life.” During the arduous journey through school and training, Josh and I would chat about the first thing we wanted to do after training–that first goal or experience we’d been putting off since what felt like forever. We didn’t travel as much as our friends during those years, for various reasons, and so we both wanted to take a big family trip. I always wanted to see the French Alps. Josh wanted to go kayaking. We had a month off to move and travel, and we tried to pack in as much as possible.

Our plans hit a snag as Josh felt a compulsion to go to a well-known hospital in Kenya where one of his friends and former chief residents was working and living, Tenwek. For a little background on us, Josh and I both were raised as evangelicals, and had mission trip experiences in college that left us pretty cynical of that subject. Those trips probably had a lot to do with why we became doctors, because we were searching for a way to serve in a noble, pragmatic way. Now we were to that point where we’d finally arrived, and Josh was ready to try on this old goal of humanitarian missions once again.

I was not ready to give up my hedonistic vacation plans, and we had some pretty tense arguments about it. Then something pretty amazing happened. I sort of miraculously got back in touch with an old friend from Kenya, who I stayed with for several weeks in college, and she was planning a trip back home with her husband and children (they live in Europe) at the exact same time we would be traveling. So I relented–I could not give up this chance to see my dear friend again, have our families meet, stay with her Mum like old times. So, 15 years after we spoke for the last time, we were planning a joint trip. Amazing.

I dutifully followed through on the zillion details required for a multi-week international trip with two tiny kids (3 and <1 at the time). We got vaccines, passports, luggage, travel car seats, arranged secure transport from the airport, etc. We set up a little circuit of travel around Kenya that put us working at Tenwek for two weeks. Fortunately, they had a Trauma Surgery staff member who would be away at that time, so I got to plug right in to their team and fill that void. Josh’s Neurosurgeon friend was craving the company of a colleague and had plenty for them to do together. It shaped up to be a great trip, packed with community, family, work, and new experiences.

Tenwek is a model missionary hospital. It has grown and expanded into an exceptional referral center. Having just started their first Neurosurgery program, they were continuing to provide more and more top notch subspecialty care. The residents were and are simply outstanding, and they were hiring more and more of them back into the staff. Service lines were being turned over from white Westerners to Kenyan doctors and other providers, which is a good marker of sustainability.

Our time there didn’t feel rushed nor languishing. Two weeks felt right. We took in the experience, had a fairly harrowing journey home (flight out of Nairobi was simply cancelled a few hours before takeoff–that’s for another post or podcast), and I thought I would write this article fairly quickly. But then we moved in, started attending jobs, and got busy with little kids. I let the experience in Kenya just sort of settle and slowly tell me what I needed to learn. Josh and I talked about it a little bit but not much. I wasn’t sure if he would get that itch to go back soon, but after two years, it hasn’t happened. My feelings toward it are too complicated for one blog post; probably too complicated for even a series of blog posts. I’ve decided to just give this broad overview here, and then record some podcasts with Josh where we unpack it all, and just see where the conversation goes.

I will say that during this intervening time, I have sought out different opinions and voices on the topic of medical missions. No White Saviors has been a source of new ideas and challenging insights for which I am so grateful. Moving from a reading list on Effective Altruism to the White Savior Complex has been quite a mental and even spiritual migration, and after two years of introspection and seeking, I think I’m ready to start having this conversation, knowing I will have blind spots and will need recalibration and a good smacking or two by those with much more wisdom than I have. But I need to have the courage to be open to those critiques, so if you’re interested in this story, check out the podcast in the next few weeks.

And with that, I feel great for breaking the ice after two years of neglect for the Indie Docs project. I don’t know exactly where we’re going, but I think we’re moving in the right direction.