Lead Stories
Dr. John Spurrier casts a young boy’s arm at Macha Mission Hospital in Africa during a recent visit. Spurrier is a missionary for Brethren Christ Church, Grantham (Pa.), and has worked intermittently at the Macha Mission Hospital since the mid-1970s.
Photo by Olivia Kimmel
Dr. John Spurrier casts a young boy’s arm at Macha Mission Hospital in Africa during a recent visit. Spurrier is a missionary for Brethren Christ Church, Grantham (Pa.), and has worked intermittently at the Macha Mission Hospital since the mid-1970s.

Faith and service

Amy Writing Awards | Dillsburg doctors make a difference in the African bush. Our first prize award winner

Carolyn Kimmel won first prize and $10,000 in the 2013 Amy Writing Awards, which recognizes Bible-based articles that appear in secular publications. (Read a selection of this year’s winning articles, which will be posted online through Tuesday, May 13.) For more information about entering this year’s competition, please visit the Amy Writing Awards section of the WORLD website.

The following article originally appeared in the Dillsburg (Pa.) Banner on Oct. 24, 2013.

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon at Dr. John Spurrier’s house when he got a call from the hospital. A child had a peanut stuck up her nose. Could Dr. Spurrier come over?

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Grabbing a paperclip from his table, the doctor from Dillsburg sauntered across the dirt road and into the one-story Macha Mission Hospital, Zambia, where he headed for the pediatric ward and found the distraught child and mother.

“Hold her still for me,” he said and, after looping one end of the paperclip, inserted it into the child’s nose and pulled out a perfectly oval peanut, no doubt shelled by the child’s older sibling earlier in the day.

“Works every time—the best thing there is for removing a foreign object from the nose,” Spurrier said with a smile and told the relieved mother, “She can go home.”

Peanut extraction is fairly common in this community, where the nuts grow bountifully and offer an important source of protein for an often malnourished people.

This procedure was easy; others are not. Sometimes, the night before an unfamiliar surgery, Spurrier checks his medical books to get a quick primer. Sound incredible? If he doesn’t do the surgery, no one else will—so he might as well try.

Not far down the dusty, washboard road from Macha Hospital, Dr. Phil Thuma, another doctor from Dillsburg, does groundbreaking research on mosquitoes and malaria.

The two doctors began working at Macha Mission Hospital in the mid-1970s as missionaries for the Grantham-based Brethren in Christ Church and have worked there intermittently ever since. They provide medical care to a catchment area of about 160,000 people, many of whom walk, bike or take an ox cart across miles of African bush to seek treatment.

“Medicine here is interesting and challenging, but more than that, I am really needed here,” said Spurrier, formerly an emergency room doctor at Holy Spirit Hospital in Camp Hill.

One evening, Spurrier came home nearly 12 hours and 22 surgical procedures after leaving the house. Though certainly tired, he smiled. It had been a satisfying day, like so many of his days practicing medicine in primitive, short-staffed conditions far inferior to where he could practice in the United States. If he hadn’t set that arm, amputated that leg, drained that cyst, resected that bowel, these people may have died.

If he was lucky, he could end the day with a hot shower—if the water came on and the electricity didn’t go off so that the water heater he rigged up in the shower would work.

The Spurriers have running water for only two or three hours in the evening. Every night when the pipes whistle and groan, signaling the water’s appearance, Esther Spurrier, John’s wife, begins the laborious task of gathering water in barrels for the next 24 hours.

“Even the uncertainty of our water feels like a blessing when I consider so many African women who have to gather water and carry it back to their village on their heads,” she said. “Water is very heavy!”

Africa is full of wondrous sights—elephants lumbering along the banks of the Zambezi River, Victoria Falls spilling over an impossibly wide expanse of cliff, a nighttime sky pierced with bright white stars—but it also has its share of sobering sights.

An abundance of postage stamp-sized homes with thatched roofs and scant furnishings dot the African bush. There is great poverty, dirty water, deadly disease.

In the three decades since they arrived, the two Dillsburg doctors have worked hard to make a large dent in two of Africa’s most serious health problems—malaria and HIV transmission.

Using an innovative “test and treat” approach, the doctors have been able to identify people who test positive for these maladies and treat them before they have symptoms in order to curb transmission to others.

For HIV-infected people, that means starting antiretroviral medications sooner. Although the drugs are not a cure, if taken correctly, the virus can’t be found in the blood five months later.

Mother-to-child transmission of HIV in the Macha area has decreased dramatically, with HIV in newborns down from almost 15 percent in 2002 to 7.2 percent in 2012, Spurrier, 65, said. The drugs also curb transmission of HIV from an infected partner to an uninfected partner.

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