Cover Story
Photograph by Gerry Locklin

Serving a God of miracles

The medical mission field, says WORLD's 2010 Daniel of the Year, comes with threats-and privileges

Issue: "Daniel of the Year," Dec. 18, 2010

KIJABE, Kenya-For doctors like Richard Bransford, enemy warfare begins in the womb. The spinal column fails to form, an infection leaves fluid on the brain, or genetic makeup jumpstarts any number of crippling diseases. In Africa, where Bransford works, such disabilities are both more common and less treated than in the United States. The UN estimates that up to 20 percent of the population in some African nations is disabled.

For over 40 years Bransford has been up at dawn most mornings to engage the assorted enemies assaulting children born with physical and mental abnormalities. When I first visited him in Kenya at Kijabe Hospital in 2001, he arrived at the hospital at 6 a.m. to do rounds, had breakfast at home with his family at 7:15-a short walk up the hill perched above the Great Rift Valley-and was back in the operating room for surgery by 9.

That day he supervised 12 cleft lip and cleft palate operations in two operating rooms. That year he performed over 1,500 surgical procedures at Kijabe, including treating 1,000 children from all over Africa for some form of hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain) and related spina bifida (where an unformed spinal column leaves an exposed sac of fluid). On Fridays he took a break from the surgical schedule-and traveled Kenya's rural byways and villages with one of 13 mobile medical clinics.

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This November I caught up with Bransford at Joytown, a school for disabled children about 90 minutes' drive from the hospital in the town of Thika. Within minutes of Bransford's arrival he spied a 9-year-old boy with cerebral palsy slumped in a wheelchair and initially unresponsive to his questions. Bransford continued to smile and chat with the boy as he tightened the laces on his heavy, leather orthopedic boots. He checked the leg braces, then said, "OK cookie, let's get you out of here." Hoisting the boy from his wheelchair, Bransford had him doing paces on orthopedic parallel bars, back and forth, turning his twisted torso with difficulty, while the doctor closely eyed his progress and the bend of his legs.

As the boy grew more agile, his face opened into a smile, and Bransford said, "What's your name?" Daniel, he replied. "Oh, are you like Daniel in the lion's den?" asked Bransford.

If a disabled child can aim to be a conqueror, then this 70-year-old surgeon aims to be with him in that fight. Bransford has battled alongside thousands of handicapped children-and adults-to help them lead more productive lives and in many cases save them from early deaths. For a general surgeon trained over 40 years ago at Johns Hopkins and the University of Nebraska, that often has meant coaxing specialists to Kenya to show him new techniques-or performing surgery with a textbook open beside him.

This year Bransford received international recognition for that diligence: An American Medical Association Excellence in Medicine Award and the American College of Surgeons 2010 Surgical Humanitarian Award. And for a lifetime spent tending not only the medical but also the spiritual needs of African children, Dr. Richard S. Bransford is WORLD's 2010 Daniel of the Year.

In choosing Bransford we seek also to pay tribute to other medical missionaries-professionals around the world who long ago chose to forgo healthcare debates, malpractice dilemmas, and risk management seminars in order to serve the underprivileged, the neglected, the war torn, and the lost.

They do so with daily risk and sometimes pay the ultimate price. This year in Haiti 75-year-old Dr. Zilda Arns died when debris struck her head in the January earthquake as she left a church where she had just given a speech. The Brazilian pediatrician had for over 30 years run a Catholic charity that successfully reduced infant mortality by more than half in over 30,000 rural South American communities.

In Afghanistan, among the 10 aid workers killed by Taliban gunmen in August were eye doctor Tom Little, who had served in the country since 1976, and dentist Thomas Grams, who gave up private practice in Colorado 10 years ago so he could work alongside medical missionaries.

As Bransford puts it: "I really want to serve a God of miracles. I want to put my foot into the Jordan before the waters separate."

The risks and the demands of field medicine aren't static. As Bransford's skill and reputation have grown, along with his experience in finding ways to treat all the maladies Africa has thrown at him, the work has carried him from hospital battlegrounds to live-fire war zones-in Somalia, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan.

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