20 Years, 10,000 Children: Medical Ministries Compassion in Action and Rewards Beyond Measure
He decided not to pull the trigger. Steve Meyer, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon in Sioux City, Iowa, chose life and put the gun down…a decision that ultimately resulted in thousands of children in Africa having education, food, and housing.
In 1995, Dr. Meyer’s world had come crashing down around him. He told OTW, “About 25 years ago I thought I was God’s gift to medicine. My wife, an anesthesiologist, was having a particularly hard time with our infertility problems. We adopted a child and instead of solving the problem it only deepened her sense of personal angst and depression. I only poured fuel on the fire by finding another woman. An epic moral failure on my part!”
With a loaded shotgun pointed at himself, Dr. Meyer thought of his mother and changed his mind. “Weeks later I was having my typical miserable day when the emergency room called and said, ‘We know you are not on call, but we have an adolescent with a broken leg. Could you come help out?’ I ended up putting a rod in the girl’s tibia.”
And perhaps in return, she put the seed of hope in his heart.
Dr. Meyer: “She was a member of Youth With a Mission (YWAM), an international Christian organization that helps people in more than 130 countries. My soul just opened up and I revealed to her what a mess my life had become.”
“One week later I received a phone call from the director of YWAM, who asked me to accompany them to China. ‘The physician who was supposed to come with us canceled.’ I declined, but she called me every day for two months. ‘The young girl whose leg you fixed led me to you…and God told me that you would be the person to lead our trip.’ Two weeks later I found myself on a Cathay Pacific 757 wondering how I got there.”
“One Sunday at church in Hong Kong, taking a break from smuggling bibles into China, my life changed forever. At that moment I felt myself being pushed to my knees by God. ‘I am going to take you to the end of yourself. I created you for a purpose, but it’s your choice. I accepted Christ in a profound way!’”
“When I returned and met with my pastor he said he had been praying for someone to go to Africa. Riding on my longstanding desire to see that continent, in 1996 I made my first trip to Tanzania.
Not long after, my wife and I launched Siouxland Tanzania Educational Medical Ministries (STEMM) along with my friend Lazaro Nyalandu, a member of the Tanzanian parliament, Pastor Jon Gerdts and my good friend, Mike Boose.”
Twenty years and 45 Tanzanian trips later, Dr. Meyer and his wife, Dana, have sent 10,000 children to school, facilitated surgeries on over 1,000 individuals, built bridges, and started an orphanage that operates like a home.
The Team Confronts a Tragedy
In celebration of those 20 years, in May 2017 the Meyer family, STEMM staff members, and a medical team went to Tanzania. “At the last minute we were able to pull together a medical team to join us, something that never comes together so quickly. We knew they would be needed in the Singida region, an area of two million people with no orthopedic surgeons—and where the average length of time for an open fracture patient to see an orthopedic surgeon is 11 days.”
Upon arrival in Tanzania, the team had one day before they got down to work. Dr. Meyer: “The medical team was out on safari when they came over a hill and saw a huge commotion. They saw that a bus had fallen into a ravine…a bus containing schoolchildren. As the medical team worked for hours they were only able to find three heartbeats out of the 38 souls that were on the bus that day.”
The following day, says Dr. Meyer, the medical team spotted the children’s photos in the newspaper and found out that they were still alive. “When they inquired about seeing the children, they immediately traveled to a very secure, well-guarded hospital. The three medical professionals who rescued the children were told no one could see the kids. Just then a smartly dressed man approached them and said, ‘I am the Minister of Health. I will take you to see the children.’”
“One of the girls, Sadia, had fixed dilated pupils on the scene and a cervical fracture so they were shocked that she was still alive. The other girl, Doreen, had five jaw fractures and 4 thoracic burst fractures. As for Wilson, despite an open femur fracture and serious bilateral upper extremity fractures, he always had a smile on his face. When I returned to the orphanage my wife sort of ambushed me and said, ‘We have to bring these kids to the U.S. for treatment.’”
It’s not often that an orthopedic surgeon requires the help of the Federal Aviation Administration and Homeland Security. But it would come to that.
Skeptical, but hopeful, Dr. Meyer thought, ‘With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’ I called Lazaro Nyalandu and the next morning he had me standing in front of a heavily guarded compound. ‘Steve, this is the vice president of Tanzania,’ he said.”
Dr. Meyer explained that he would like to be able to bring the three children to the U.S. for medical treatment.
“I wasn’t holding out much hope as Tanzania was in a wave of self-sufficiency. The vice president maintained a poker face during my ‘presentation,’ and even took a call from the president while I was there.”
“I left, and then headed for an unbelievably emotional memorial service for those who lost their lives on that bus. A crowd of 150,000 had gathered to pay tribute and witness as all of the caskets were brought into the local soccer stadium.”
“In an ultimate ‘be careful what you hope’ moment, the vice president stood up in front of 150,000 people and said, ‘I want to recognize the three Americans who worked hard and saved the lives of three of our children. And I want to thank Dr. Steve Meyer for agreeing to take the children back to America for medical care.’”
Now, the pressure was on. How was he going to get three children who—had 24 fractures between them—all the way around the world?
Getting Into the U.S.
In the 48 hours that followed, Dr. Meyer made 200 phone calls to every influential person he could imagine. “My friend Congressman Steve King, senators, Homeland Security—you name it I called them. At one point I was told that Steve Bannon or Mike Pence would call, but that didn’t happen.”
“Mercy Hospital in Sioux City was ready to receive the children, but we just had no way to transport them. I was scheduled to leave Tanzania in less than an hour when my wife said, ‘You’re not getting on that plane.’ She and I were fighting about that when the phone rang and it was Franklin Graham of Samaritan’s Purse.”
“‘Congressman King called me and said you needed help,’ said Graham.”
Dr. Meyer continued, “Reverend Graham wanted to know if the kids could sit upright, and offered his organization’s DC8 cargo plane with 10 rows and 3 seats. The kids could not sit upright, but I said I could have a carpenter transform the plane for them. Graham replied that he had to get permission from the FAA.”
Once they got the U.S. government green light, Tanzania and Congressman King expedited all necessary documents for the children. “Upon our arrival, we had help from every physician we asked in Sioux City, including oral surgeons, trauma surgeons, etc. Mercy Medical Center medical executive directors Drs. Steve Joyce and Larry Volz were particularly heroic. During transport, Doreen had four thoracic burst fractures shift and she became completely paralyzed. I have been chastised about praying out loud in the operating room (OR), but I was at the end of my capabilities. I turned to the surgical team and said, ‘I can’t fix her so I am going to pray. If you are offended then step out of the OR.’”
“Dr. Quentin Durwood and I implanted 14 pedicle screws and two rods…and we prayed for her to walk. A week later I was doing rounds and the nurse ran out and said, ‘Doreen is moving her toes!’ I continued with rounds and a few hours later the nurse gave me the news that she was moving her legs. Eighty days after surgery Doreen walked off the plane in Tanzania.”
“Thousands of their fellow Tanzanians welcomed them home. Lazaro Nyalandu posted pictures on Facebook and two hours later they had 1.2 million hits. The next day we all attended a gut-wrenching memorial service at a school. The busload of kids had been en route to this particular school and in memory of the deceased the school had erected a monument. Each of the 5th, 6th, and 7th graders placed roses on the structure—all while the parents and our team watched in agony.”
Orthopedic Needs in the Developing World
Painting a grim picture of the orthopedic challenges in the developing world, Dr. Meyer says, “By 2020 the economic impact of road accidents will be more than malaria, typhoid, and AIDS combined. To help stem this tide, STEMM is working with Neil Sheth, M.D, assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Pennsylvania to build a $30 million hospital in Tanzania. Services to be offered include joint reconstruction, trauma, pediatrics, etc. We are using the Indian cataract surgery model that involves three levels of service and results in a self-sustaining entity.”
And as for the orphans, they need more room. “We need to expand the orphanage in order to accommodate more children. And we are always looking for nurses and orthopedic surgeons to volunteer. Fortunately, we have a partnership with a Sioux City college and each year some of those students come on work trips with us. I want my colleagues to see that it’s possible to turn kids on to what a difference they can make.”
“Compassion compels action,” says Dr. Meyer. “Prayer and kind thoughts are great, but at the end of the day, action is what propels goodness forward.”
For more information about STEMM, visit their website at stemm.org or contact Dr. Meyer at email@example.com.