BCA event will raise money for mission hospital in Kenya

Dr. Russ White will share a presentation at Barrington Christian Academy on Thursday night, April 12

By Josh Bickford
Posted 4/6/18

Barrington Christian Academy is about 11,600 miles away from Kenya.

Culturally, the two locations may be even more distant. 

But come Thursday night, people in town can learn firsthand how …

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BCA event will raise money for mission hospital in Kenya

Dr. Russ White will share a presentation at Barrington Christian Academy on Thursday night, April 12


Barrington Christian Academy is about 11,600 miles away from Kenya.

Culturally, the two locations may be even more distant. 

But come Thursday night, people in town can learn firsthand how the two places are connected when Dr. Russ White shares a presentation about his work at the Tenwek Mission Hospital in rural Kenya. The presentation is part of the "Tenwek Hearts" fund-raiser planned by Barrington Christian Academy senior student Natalie Chan, and will be held at 6:30 p.m. at BCA.

Initially, Natalie planned to travel to Tenwek as part of her senior project at BCA, "but that didn't work out because of the election," said Natalie. 

"It wasn't safe. It just wasn't right. So me and Mrs. (Elsie) Wright had a meeting to discuss having a fund-raiser to support Dr. White and his new cardio-thoracic unit in Kenya."

Dr. White, who first came to know BCA when his wife was hired to teach at the school in 1989, has been a driving force at Tenwek Mission Hospital. For years he has helped build the hospital's residency programs, and now he is helping build Kenya's first accredited cardio-thoracic unit.

"When I first went I went saying we'll never do heart surgery in Kenya," said Dr. White. "It's too technically complicated and there's too much capital — too many people, too much training. We'll never get there. I was training general surgeons for 10 years and I spent a lot of my time on esophagus and lungs. One of their main problems is cancer of the esophagus. It's an unusual cancer here, but it's the most common cancer there. 

"So, I see 500 new patients a year with esophageal cancer. When I first went there, everyone would die, there was no treatment offered. And we've changed that. We've developed techniques and developed resource-conscious techniques that allow us to make a difference."

And soon, Dr. White will lead the charge to train new doctors to do heart surgery.

"It's interesting how God works things," he said. "So suddenly, we do the majority of heart surgeries in Central Africa. Our hospital does, which now means I do, but that's going to change.

"I'm passionate about it. It's exciting. I work with a bunch of young African doctors who are passionate about what they do and what they want to do … changing the face of the subcontinent."

The fund-raiser is one small piece of the effort to build the new cardio-thoracic unit at Tenwek. In fact, the facility is expected to cost $48 million. Dr. White said there are a number of large corporate sponsors who will play a key role in the capital campaign, but, he added, Natalie's fund-raiser is also very important. He said every dollar raised can help save a life.

"I have 600 kids on the waiting list for heart surgery right now," said Dr. White. "I won't get to most of them. Most them will die, but 10 years from now that will be different because we will have trained all these people and that backlog will hopefully be a thing of the past."

Dr. White's work has inspired many people, including Natalie. She plans to study pre-med in college next fall.

"I grew up loving science ever since I was little, but I always wanted to be a doctor in Mass General or somewhere in the U.S.," said Natalie. "Maybe a year ago I heard about what Dr. White is doing and what some other doctors are doing all over the world, and that just sparked my interest in medical missions. That wasn't even on my mind maybe three years ago, but I'll be going to Gordon College for pre-med. I haven't decided where I'm going yet, but surgery is really piquing my interest. 

"We just got back from a medical conference in Florida. Just hearing all these medical students talk about their journey. It was super messy and they didn't have anything planned at all and they didn't have anything figured out, and I don't have anything figured out yet and I'm just a high school senior, but … just hearing everybody talk about their lives and where they are going is extremely inspiring. It's more than a senior project now. It's my future."

Dr. White said it was very rewarding to hear that his work is inspiring young people to consider working in medical missions.

"It's been years and decades of work and Natalie is on one end of that spectrum or maybe even younger. And on the other end of that spectrum it is gratifying seeing young surgeons out working where they haven't even had surgeons," said Dr. White.

"It's not about me. It's about what God can do through all these different things we never expect."

Years of service

Dr. White felt a calling to work at a medical mission long before he became a doctor.

"Yeah, I've had a passion for it," he said. "My parents were medical missionaries. I was born in Belgian Congo, but I grew up in the United States. We move to the midwest when I was 2 years old. My parents' plan was to return but my dad developed coronary heart disease. He ended up dying at a very young age. So I grew up like most kids in the US, but not like most kids, because of this clear influence from my family, that the rest of the world doesn't have the opportunities that we have."

Dr. White said his passion for helping others in less developed areas continued to grow, and when he entered the residency program at Brown University he he took time to consider what path he would follow. Eventually his vision came into focus — he was headed to Kenya.

"When I first went there in 1992 there was one residency program in the country that produced four surgeons per year," said Dr. White. "That's four surgeons for a country of 40 million, and Kenya is one of the more advanced countries in that region. Now at Tenwek alone we have 42 (surgeons) in training."

And throughout the region, there are now more than 500 surgeons in training, Dr. White added.  

"We've developed a whole bunch of residency programs, much like they have at Brown University. That's the connection — I bring over residents as part of their rotation," said Dr. White. "We've been doing that since 2001."

Dr. White spends much of his time working as the chief of surgery and director of medical education at Tenwek. He also travels a lot as part of the fund-raising effort.

"I work with various churches around the country… churches and medical foundations and medical corporations and people who are interested in what we do," he said. "The people who are interested in what we do are people who are interested in international medical and surgical groups and international education. We are now the largest training center in that whole region for surgeons and family practitioners."

When he is in Kenya, Dr. White spends five days a week, 10 hours each day working as a surgeon.

"Over there I love that we can concentrate on what is real," he said. "We get so caught up (in the United States) with the rules and regulations and insurance companies, the third party payers, on and on and on, that you're so divorced from what you're doing — what are you doing. (In Kenya) you're here to take care of sick people and help them get better. That's what we do."

Barrington resident and fellow surgeon Dr. Jim Fingleton has traveled to Tenwek a number of times and will help establish the new training program.

BCA connection

The link between Barrington Christian Academy and Tenwek Mission Hospital has grown over the years. 

In 2002, Mrs. Wright's husband was looking for a career change. He had managed a large company, but was looking for something "more valuable." 

He reached out to Dr. White and soon found himself working at Tenwek.

"In January 2003 my husband went over for what he thought was a little help for a transition (from business to mission work) and it's really become his passion for the last 15 years," said Mrs. Wright. 

The connection grew again in 2007 when Mrs. Wright developed a program where she began taking BCA seniors to Tenwek for two-week visits. 

"In one aspect or another they've done service there and also their studies," she said. "They (the BCA students) get involved in the community health program, they find out about women's issues and they study specific health issues…"

Natalie was scheduled to travel to Kenya this month as part of her senior project, but Mrs. Wright and others thought the political climate in that country might become a bit too dangerous. Instead, Natalie has organized the April 12 fund-raiser.

"It feels great to be so young and have these connections. I wouldn't have this connection if I didn't go to BCA," said Natalie.

Dr. White said he truly appreciates the support he receives at BCA.

"Not everybody's going to go to Africa and operate on hearts. Obviously that would not work. Not everybody has a passion to do that, but everybody can be involved to a degree," said Dr. White. 

"We feel there's a base of support here — financially, yes, they provide a house, they help us with our monthly expenses. Emotionally, spiritually, people are surrounding us and on our side, and holding the ropes as one would say. That's a big part of it."

Fund-raiser details

• Presentation by Dr. Russ White about his work at Tenwek Mission Hospital; Chinese food provided by Hong Kong Buffet

• Thursday, April 12

• 6:30 p.m.

• At Barrington Christian Academy

• Ticket information: Write to nataliechan88888@gmail.com or call 401-465-6192 or visit tenwekhearts.com

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.