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Kathleen Byrd
Photo by Matt Rose
Kathleen Byrd

Life-saving 60s

Lifestyle | A postponed retirement saved lives on the mission field

Issue: "Syria's pain," Sept. 8, 2012

In her two-room clinic in Gundo Meskel, Ethiopia, with cement floors and walls of corrugated tin nailed to a tree, nurse Kathleen Byrd-or "Kitty" -never lost a mother in childbirth.

"Should we send her home to die?" asked the family of the first mother Kitty saved, whose baby had turned sideways in the womb. "Or should she die here?"

"She's not going to die," said Kitty, and began to turn the baby.

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As she worked, Kitty felt a commotion around her feet. "They are kissing your feet, Kitty," her helper said. Eager to keep working, Kitty answered, "Please tell them to stop!"

Before Kitty arrived in Gundo Meskel, the local people lost six to eight mothers in childbirth every month.

You know when a baby's already dead in the womb, she says. You can smell it. The trouble was that the Ethiopians didn't know that if you squeezed the soft spot on the baby's head you could cause the baby to emerge and save the mother's life.

Kathleen Byrd saved the lives of those mothers when she was in her 60s. Kitty began traveling following the death of her husband who worked in groceries and privately called her "Kitten." She could have gotten remarried, she guesses, but she traveled instead.

She's always been adventurous: As a little girl Kitty tightrope-walked the family clothesline, and a few years ago she performed as a clown at the Billy Graham training center-decked in face paint and big shoes. "When someone says 'Let's go,'" says Kitty, "I do."

Kitty wanted to become a doctor, but her West Virginia family-her mother a hospital worker and her father a dynamiter-didn't have the money. Dr. Buxton, the 6-foot-2 surgeon who owned the local hospital, believed the 18-year-old, 4-foot-11 Kitty was too little to go into nurse's training. "I talked my way in," Kitty said. While observing Dr. Buxton in surgery, Kitty asked him many questions. Soon, instead of disregarding her, Dr. Buxton became eager to teach her.

After a lifetime in nursing, she felt God calling her to Ethiopia. She was driving her car and felt an impression so strong she turned around to see if someone had touched her shoulder. She immediately called the Baptist Mission Board, which directed her to Kenya instead. Kitty and her mother collected and sent the required supplies for the Kenya trip. Then the mission board redirected Kitty to Ethiopia, where she felt she was supposed to go all along.

In Ethiopia Kitty lived on a plateau 9,000 feet above sea level. She kept the mice out of her tin home by shoving plastic grain bags into the cracks in the building's perimeter. She took five-minute helicopter rides to assist in medical emergencies, and sifted mud out of the drinking water. In her clinic she averaged 130 patients a day from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. She set bones, and fed milk to starving babies through nose tubes. She taught a 19-year-old native boy, Haptam, to change dressings.

After Ethiopia she went to Kazakhstan. "We fed the Kazakhs," she says, showing a photograph of beans, then one of Kazakh boys with twisted legs whom she treated but who would still never be allowed to be seen in public. "But they weren't starving to death."

Now Kitty is 83 and lives in a condominium in Asheville, N.C. She wears all pink today, with a headband to push back her thinning hair and bright red lipstick. She pads around her rosy-carpeted museum of a house in rubber shoes and describes her treasures, beginning with several charcoal drawings of Ethiopians on the first wall. She can't choose her favorite of the 41 countries she's visited. Australia, where she ate the long white worm that tasted exactly like peanut butter? Kazakhstan, where the cab driver gave her the sassy foxtail tam?

Often, natives would give Kitty gifts but not the other missionaries in her team-all because she walked right up to people and kissed them on the cheek.

Chapter two

Handut photo

They aren't really having a mid-life crisis-but Travis and Gina Sheets want to put their farming skills to work on the African mission field in a nontraditional way.

Gina, 44, is a top economic development official in Indiana state government. Travis, 43, is a county councilman in central Indiana, where they have a small farm. Next year they plan to be in Liberia, offering their farming skills through the Liberian International Christian College.

Earlier this year they heard Liberian social activist Leymah Gbowee speak about the peace and reconciliation movement that helped end a 1990s civil war that devastated the country founded by freed American slaves in the 1840s. Through the Indianapolis-based Sagamore Institute they have also caught the vision of Sagamore fellow Amy Sherman, author of Vocational Stewardship.

Working in the farm extension tradition, the Sheets duo would like to see the country move from importing 90 percent of its food to exporting. They hope that their agricultural skills can open doors to share Christ, similar to the way doctors and nurses have traditionally taken their skills to the mission field.

"There's so much there in terms of natural resources," says Gina Sheets. "The people are willing, but they have lost so much." The couple will live without electricity or running water. They are physically ready. Travis competes in Iron Man triathlons, and Gina runs even farther in ultra races-80 miles. They've sold their livestock. Not having children, they are committed to their complex challenge-economic development and simple farming techniques blended with the gospel-for at least five years.

Travis and Gina Sheets are part of a wave of believers trying to do significant work in the second half of their lives, after vocational and financial success in the first half. - Russell Pulliam

Chelsea Kolz Boes
Chelsea Kolz Boes

Chelsea is an editorial assistant for God’s World News. She graduated from Patrick Henry College with a degree in literature. Follow Chelsea on Twitter @chelseakboes.

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