As you may be visiting this blog for the first time, I’ll take a moment to bring you up to speed as to who we are, what we’re doing and where we’re going.
We are the Netteburgs. Danae (gynecologist and mother), Olen (ER doc and father), Lyol (three-year-old) and Zane (ten-month-old). We are American Seventh-day Adventist missionaries to Tchad (or Chad, if you prefer), Africa. We all take turns writing blogs (even Zane) and Olen happens to be writing this one.
Danae spent a year in Zambia. I spent a year in Korea/Africa. We decided that we wanted to be missionary physicians to Africa before we ever met. I fell in love with Danae before I ever knew she wanted to be a missionary physician to Africa. Danae fell in love with me... sometime after that. But fall in love with me she did.
We arrived in Tchad December 12, 2010, a date that is now part of the very definition of our family.
So why do we write?
I wish I could give some noble reason, like... We write to inspire, or We write to give spiritual lessons, or We write to raise awareness of the plight of the Africans, or We write to create the next generation of missionaries, or We write to... well, pretty much any reason would be more impressive than the real one, but...
We write because there’s no psychologist in Tchad. Writing blogs is cheaper than flying back to the states or talking it over with a shrink on the phone. It’s also cheaper than taking medicines, so we write blogs.
If you talk to a shrink and you’re not honest, you’re just throwing your money (or your insurance’s money) out the window. So we are honest in our blogs. Always and completely honest. Which means our blogs aren’t always uplifting. Not all of our blogs leave you feeling good about the state of the world. In fact, I dare venture that few of them will. The simple truth is that when we’re most in need of writing, it’s because we’re ticked off at the state of affairs here. When do you most need to talk to your shrink? When you’re in a bad place, mentally or emotionally or spiritually. (If you find yourself telling your psychiatrist how very happy you have been, you either don’t need him anymore, or you are being forced to see him, likely by state-ordered legal decree, and you’re not really all there just yet.) Thus, our blog has a similar bent.
So you, in effect, have become our psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health professionals. Thank you. But be warned. Don’t read on unless you’re ready to take on that responsibility and are prepared to share this burden with us. Because we will take no shame nor hesitation in thrusting it at you.
Our complete honesty has drawn us a hefty amount of criticism. Don’t feel free to continue this. There are those who feel it’s our responsibility to be more cheerful and uplifting and God-glorifying. There are those who feel that we should withhold some honesty for legal defense purposes. There are those who feel that... well, anyway, there are people who don’t like our blog and don’t want us to continue it in it’s current form, but it is what it is and it will follow our family’s spiritual thermometer as it climbs and falls in season.
We will share with you our successes (really God’s successes), our failures, our feelings of abandonment and our feelings of inadequacy. If you have been in the mission field before, it will sound familiar. If you have thought about the mission field, it will bring those thoughts home and make you second-guess them. If you’ve never thought about the mission field, it will force you to.
But the honest truth is that we’re not the world’s most talented writers. And even the best writers out there, the best orators in the annals of history, the best actors of screen and stage, the best playwrights not named Shakespeare, could not make you understand what Tchad is. You have to live it. Whatever you think it is, it is worse.
And that is why we chose to come. Nobody sent us here. Nobody ever even gave us the option of coming here. We ended up visiting this place in 2009 because our visas for Cameroon were nonexistent and it seemed like more fun than staying in the capital for a week. We saw the need and saw that we could help. So we asked the church for permission to come to Bere, Tchad.
We work in a place where the only person who speaks my language is my spouse. And where very few of our patients speak French, the language we learned before we came. We work where virtually none of the tests we’re used to ordering in the states are available, where very few supplies are available and where most of the medications we prescribe from day-to-day are medicines that we never gave in the states.
We come home to a house that is 103 degrees at the coolest point of it’s 1000 square feet, where our children don’t understand what it’s like to be normal because all the other children just stare at them all day long. And the adults.
We live in a district where we are the only physicians for 200,000 people and there are no paved roads, no public water or sewer, where there is no electrical grid and no cyber cafe.
And we’ve become accustomed to death. Two other Adventist missionary families have lost their sons to malaria in Bere, Tchad in the last three years. Another lost a 20-plus-week pregnancy. We’ve learned that babies, toddlers, children, adolescents, adults and the elderly die, and we’ve had the opportunity to hold them all as they breathe their last. And we’ve become attached to many of them. Perhaps you’ve read the story of Emmanuel. Perhaps you’ll read the story of Zeke, a little boy who lived in our house for a short 19 days. They each represent a fresh wound in our mind and on our heart and that scab is torn away and starts healing every other day, which is how often a child dies in our hospital.
And we like our jobs. No, we love our jobs. We love these patients, our patients. They are our friends and our neighbors. It’s hard to understand and impossible to explain. It’s the most frustrating thing in the world and the most rewarding thing in the world. While we beg and plead for your prayers, we don’t want your pity. We don’t even deserve your pity. We’re doing what we love to do, what we were called to do, what we were created to do. We know that we are doing exactly what God wants to do, where He wants us to do it and when He wants us to do it. How many people can look you in the eye and say that? We are blessed beyond measure.
We agreed to come to Tchad for six years, although we’ve always said that we’d stay until God took us elsewhere. We were prepared to stay longer. Dr Hart, a man I deeply admire and respect, once said to me, ‘Who knows? Maybe you’ll be one of the career missionaries.’ I want to be that.
We came here thinking long term. We’ve had plans drawn up for new buildings and expansion. We’ve built walls. We’ve built buildings. We’ve raised money. We’ve invested thousands of dollars of our own money. We’re now ready to build a private ward, an OR/delivery room/lab buildings and a house for the physician we recruited to come (my father-in-law, not exactly selling snow to an Eskimo). We’ve drafted plans for a nursing school and recruited a nurse to come start the school. We’ve helped bring in a volunteer to create a radio station. We’ve started a $10,000 public health initiative. We have plans to build health centers. We have plans to build housing for more staff. We have plans to build entirely new patient wards.
We’ve had a lot of plans. They all seemed like God’s plans. This all seemed like God’s leading. This all seemed like God’s guidance.
And we seemed immune. Our family seemed insulated. We seemed healthy. I’ve had malaria several times. I’ve passed out from it and come to with IVs in my arms and crowds hovering over me. Danae’s had malaria. Lyol’s had it. But we didn’t care. We got better.
We had our dream jobs, our dream family, our dream life.
And then Zane got sick. And didn’t get better. After a fever for over a month, refractory to more medications than I care to delineate for the millionth time, Zane and his mother went home. Home home. To the states. Where he magically got better. Without intervention. For a month. Then he returned home. Home home. To Bere. And six days later, he got a fever again. And now he’s had a fever for a week.
And now we’re tired.
We’re tired of Zane being sick. We’re tired of worrying about him. We’re tired of being up at night with him. We’re tired of the hospital nurses banging on our door all night, every night. We’re tired of people coming to our house all the time. We’re tired of neighbors stealing our mangoes. We’re tired of people saying, ‘You’re white. You should give me money.’ We’re tired of people lying to us. We’re tired of people trying to take advantage of us. We’re tired of nurses not following orders. We’re tired of nurses lying on the nursing forms. We’re tired of essential, life-saving equipment disappearing from the hospital. We’re tired of local church politics. We’re tired of national church politics. We’re tired of union church politics. We’re tired of division church politics. We’re tired of general conference church politics. We’re tired of our local district medical officers. We’re tired of the heat. We’re tired of the dust. We’re tired of the dirt. We’re tired of sweating.
All this has been here all the time, and we’ve been enjoying the challenges, until Zane got sick. Now everything is turned on its head. We did all the right things. We tried all the right treatments. We took him to the states and got all the right tests. They were all negative. And now he’s sick again. Will it ever end? Are there any options? Is there anything we haven’t tried or done yet?
Yes. We haven’t left. Yet. We haven’t yet tried leaving. Permanently. Yet. We haven’t yet moved to a place where he’ll always be healthy. Yet.
We have many friends and relatives who have gone to the mission field for six or nine months. One year. Two years. Three years. We laughed at them. You can’t make a difference in that short of time. Yup, we were going to be long-termers. Six years was just going to be a start. We would be the people truly accepted into the tribe we served. We would be the missionaries that changed the world. We’d be the missionaries they wrote books about.
I know we’re not the first missionaries to have a sick kid. In fact, most missionaries have stories about their kids being deathly ill. I know, because I’ve heard all these stories in the last two months. I know there are hoards of missionaries who have lost their children. But that’s different. That’s not my kid. Zane is my kid. This is my son you’re talking about. Not just somebody else’s kid. My kid. My son. My sick, beautiful son. My fragile ten-month-old son. My son I can do something about. My son I can cure by simply taking him away from here. This is my son.
The good missionaries say things like, but even if I lose a child, think of all the other lives we’re saving and all the other souls we’re winning. You’re right. And I know you mean it. And that’s great. I wish I could say the same. But I can’t. This is my son.
I am not God. I did not send my son into the world to die to save many. No, He did that with His Son. Voluntarily. I don’t recall ever volunteering my son to die. No. I don’t care how many people could be helped along the way. I’m selfish. This is my son.
We always thought we’d have more kids. But we don’t think we will now. Do we really want to go through this each time? Or should we do like the Tchadians and have lots of kids and just plan on several of them dying?
God and I had a deal. He keeps my family healthy. I’m a missionary to Tchad. I’m still holding up my end of the bargain.
So what does God want from me now? Does He want me to stick it out? Is He going to end up taking away my son? Does He want me to go home and take care of my family? Try it again later in a few years when my kids are older and less fragile? Try it again in a different place that’s not as hard as Tchad?
Do we leave the place we just recruited my in-laws to? Do we leave the place we’ve invested so much of our time, energy, talents, money, tears, blood and sweat into, the place we moved all our earthly belongings to? Do we accept that we just couldn’t hack more than a year and a half in this place?
I don’t know.
But what will I do if something happens to my son while I’m playing the world-saving missionary? What will I say to all the second-guessers who ask why I came? Why I didn’t leave? What will I say to my wife? What will I say to Lyol when he’s old enough to ask why I didn’t love his brother enough to take him away from the riskiest place in the world? What do I say to Lyol when he asks if I would have taken the same risks with him? When he realizes that I did take the same risks with him?
But we’re still here. For now. We haven’t left. Yet. As for tomorrow, I don’t know. God still wants us here, so it’s the safest place in the world for us to be. But the moment He says, ‘Go,’ I’m out. I’m not the missionary-hero. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ve come to the wrong blog. And that’s the honest truth.