Many Are Called, But Few Are Heroes

Posted: Sep 06, 2007 12:01 AM

Having worked nearly two decades “inside the beltway,” I’ve become blasé about the public relations entourages of people with massive ambitions and meager accomplishments. How refreshing then to read about the real thing — a man of humility and faithfulness whose remarkable life includes medical missionary work among the poorest of the poor, as well as founding and building one of the premier mission hospitals in the world. In his newly released book, Miracle at Tenwek, Gregg Lewis provides a gripping account of the heroic life of Dr. Ernie Steury, a medical missionary who established a world renowned hospital in a remote area of Kenya.

Ernie Steury’s life brings reality to St. Augustine’s comment, “It is pride that changes angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.” The account of Steury’s dedication and commitment to excellence “strangely exalts the heart,” as St. Augustine so aptly put it.

Dr. Ernie Steury went to Kenya in 1959 to serve a small clinic and dispensary. Over the years, he turned that clinic into a 300-bed hospital that is recognized around the world as a model medical facility. The outstanding national and missionary staff at Tenwek Hospital — located near the village of Bomet in the highlands of southwest Kenya — continues to serve the medical and spiritual needs of hundreds of thousands of Kenyans. The hospital’s community health and development programs garner praise around the globe. Dr. Steury’s extraordinary dedication to his patients, along with his integration of top-notch medical skills and deep faith, make him a model for medical missionaries.

An Indiana farm boy, Ernie Steury became a medical doctor worthy of being a hero to American young people who want their lives to make a difference. He went into an area of Africa with an uncertain and inadequate electrical supply, and years later, through his efforts and financing, a dam was built on the nearby river to provide hydroelectricity to the whole region. Without any formal training as a surgeon, and with few medical instruments, he saved lives.

Lewis cites numerous examples of medical emergencies where Dr. Steury lacked the equipment to handle a life-and-death situation. One particularly compelling story was about a young boy who was caught in the crossfire of tribal warfare. An arrowhead punctured his abdominal aorta. Lewis described Dr. Steury’s surgical catch-22: if he left the arrowhead in, the boy would slowly bleed to death, and if he removed the arrow in the absence of the necessary clamps and medical equipment, the boy would bleed to death. Dr. Steury prayed and took a few seconds to think. Suddenly, he had an idea. A red rubber catheter and suction tubing could provide a makeshift vascular clamp. “With little time and only one chance to get it right,” Steury carefully, step-by-step, over the next hour gradually performed a miracle of ingenuity and skill. The boy walked out of the hospital just ten days later.

There is, of course, much more to Ernie Steury’s story than a simple “boy-does-good” explanation. Steury’s experiences as a medical student formed a clear vision of his future role; he vowed to become a spiritual as well as physical healer. The route to that vision, however, began in an unpromising way. He was not a serious student when he went to college, but his dad died the next summer prompting him to be more diligent than before. He fell in love with a girl who was also called to be a missionary. By Divine Providence, their dreams for the future merged. Steury took his MCAT exams, passed with flying colors, got a scholarship to Indiana University’s medical school and graduated among the top 10 in his class.

After an internship specializing in tropical medicine, Steury passed the Canadian Boards to become licensed to practice medicine anywhere in the British Commonwealth, making him “the second American missionary doctor so qualified in all of Kenya.” Later, that additional license enabled Dr. Steury to be fully credentialed by the government of Kenya. Prior to their departure for Africa, the Indiana University Medical Center gave Steury all of its older medical equipment that had been replaced when they remodeled and upgraded. All Steury had to do was hire a truck to move it and then ship it to Kenya.

Dr. Steury’s first medical procedure at Tenwek was an emergency Caesarian section (an operation he had never performed by himself). The patient’s uterus was about to rupture; if that happened, both she and her baby would die. So Steury, the only doctor within fifty miles, unpacked the crates containing the operating table and surgical instruments and set up an impromptu operating theatre. His wife Sue, a registered nurse, sterilized the instruments in her pressure cooker while Steury reviewed the procedure in his medical text. As he began the operation, Steury prayed that God would intervene –– certainly to save the woman and child but also because he knew failure would cause the people to distrust him in the future.

During his first year at Tenwek, Steury performed nearly two hundred surgeries (including a man gored by a buffalo and a woman who was speared through the abdomen). Often he had his medical textbook open beside the patient. Frequently, he studied into the night by lantern light in order to be prepared for the next day’s surgery.

One of Dr. Steury’s lasting contributions to Kenya was the development of a team of medical technicians from among the brightest people in the local Kipsigis tribe. These dedicated Christians provided caring and competent care in that remote location where electricity was available only intermittently. Even with the extra help, Steury, the only doctor, was seriously overworked. During 1978, the hospital treated 23,060 outpatients, 7,817 inpatients and performed 502 major surgeries. The chaplain’s office saw 3,500 patients for spiritual help.

Ernie Steury would not settle for “second best” work. Lewis wrote, “They couldn’t do everything they might have done with more resources. But, [Dr. Steury] was determined to set the highest standards for everything they did at Tenwek Hospital because they deserved and God expected no less.” The hospital motto is: “We treat; Jesus heals.”

The secular mind might not accept it as fact, but seen through the eyes of faith, one of the secrets of Tenwek’s success lies with the prayers of a tribesman warrior who converted to Christianity and then prayed for a doctor to come to Tenwek. After Steury’s arrival, he stood on a nearby hill to pray every time he saw the lights on in Tenwek’s operating room. He went home only when he saw the lights go out. That prayer warrior viewed Dr. Steury’s work as God’s specific answer to his prayers.

Steury’s protégé, Dr. David Stevens (now president of the Christian Medical and Dental Association) claims that Dr. Steury was the most competent physician with whom he ever worked. Today, people from all over the world study Tenwek as a successful model of community-based health care. It is not surprising that all four of the Steury children and their spouses and families are today in Christian ministry in a variety of international settings.

Lewis wrote about the great evangelist, Dwight L. Moody, challenging listeners in the late nineteenth century: “The world has yet to see what God can do with one man, totally committed to Him.” The writer observes that Ernie Steury’s work during the last half of the twentieth century is one indication of what God can accomplish with one committed Indiana farm boy. The lives of Ernie and Sue Steury — as well as that of the Kenyan tribesman who supported their work through prayer — show us how beautifully God’s grace and mercy can flow through the heart and healing hands of a person whose purpose and satisfaction in life are found in ministering God’s love to those in direst need.