THE MAKINGS OF A MISSIONARY FAMILY
Jonathon Thorp, MD, MBA, interviewed by DS editor, Pr. Penny Brink
What has it been like for you, Allie, Baby James, and two cats, settling
down in Nepal?
Settling down in Nepal has been a wonderful experience. The local institution has gone above and beyond in preparing for us to come, and we’re grateful for the very warm welcome that we’ve received. Obviously, when a couple moves halfway around the world with a two-month-old baby, nine pieces of luggage, a baby carrier, a car seat, and two cats (I think we had a total of seven or eight carry-ons), it becomes quite the adventure.
I think the biggest cultural difference is the communication style. North Americans tend to be very direct. Nepalese have a very indirect style of communication. So you need to be very sensitive to that. We have so much to learn when it comes to cultural integration. That’s probably going to be the biggest challenge ahead.
The markets are different. We buy all our fruits and vegetables off the side of the street. Everything has to be washed in either bleach or iodine. It’s such a beautiful country, but there is a lot of pollution in the towns.
The people are beautiful, they’re friendly, they’re welcoming, and we’re thrilled to be here.
What roles are you and Allie taking at Scheer Memorial?
Allie is a nurse practitioner, and she is going to be working part-time in primary care and nurse education. I’m an internal medicine physician, so I have dual roles, half clinical and half administrative—which is evolving into the role of the chief operating officer. So, eventually, I’ll be responsible for all hospital and clinic operations from an administrative standpoint.
That’s a big responsibility. How do you feel about that?
My feet are very small in very big shoes, and my knees are knocking together sometimes [laughter]. We have about 250 employees, and we see about 10,000 patients in the hospital every year. Last year we had about 70,000 outpatient visits cumulatively. It’s a very busy place.
We pretty much serve the local Kavre District, but we still get a number of patients from east of our location. We’re approximately 45 minutes west of Kathmandu. If you were to draw a triangle, going north and going east, the triangle would, on the far side, touch the borders of Tibet and China. We do have people coming in from those farther more rural areas, traveling a number of hours to find care at the hospital.
Scheer was known all across the country for excellent medical care, but unfortunately we’re not at that level right now. We’re working on rebuilding that recognition. Healthcare in Nepal, as in many countries, has changed significantly. It’s become much more competitive. There are many more providers of healthcare resources here. There is a larger hospital about 15 minutes down the road. It’s our primary “competition.”
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Did you have to become licensed to practice medicine in Nepal?
It’s actually not too hard to become licensed in Nepal, coming from a Western country. It’s just a matter of waiting for the paperwork to be processed and the interviews. The hardest thing is getting your work visa, which involves a bunch of bureaucracy. It’s not that hard; it just takes time. We’ve been here for almost three months and we’re still waiting for our work permits to come through officially. Right now I can work administratively, but not technically in medicine.
Did you plan on being a medical missionary couple from the start?
We did. I think that’s one of the beautiful parts of our story, of how God led us together. God knew that we both wanted to do this. It was probably one of the strongest common denominators we had as a couple. I first met Allie’s parents in 2001 in Tanzania. I was on location with my parents for the Africa for Christ 2001 satellite evangelistic series. Allie’s folks had come along with the evangelist, Pr. Jerry Patzer, as a medical team to provide some free clinics in the area. We just remember, very vividly, long lines of people and a tremendous need for medical services. That stuck out for me as I started thinking about a career choice and went to college.
Little did I know that 10 years later I’d be meeting the daughter of this same physician at church. She’d just come back from spending a year in the Philippines with the George family with a project sponsored by Adventist Frontier Missions. She had worked as a nurse in this high mountain clinic all by herself, no backup, and completely managed the healthcare for this whole population. She came back to the States after 11 months and said, “Hey, I need to get further training so I can be more effective in the mission field when I go back.” She had just moved to Loma Linda the day we met at church, and the rest is history!
There’s been just a strong influence for service from both our families. We really wanted to give back to the world, to a small community somewhere, through our careers. So this is just the best way for us to do it. So from a stewardship standpoint, since we’re highlighting those themes, the support of missions and projects that we had the privilege of attending over the course of our youth, influenced us to become medical missionaries.
That’s a great story. Thank you for sharing that. Do you feel that the institution
at which you were trained, or the role models that you met there, had an impact
on your career choices too?
Oh, tremendously. I am a product of Adventist education in a homeschool environment, grade school, high school, our college system, and medical school.
The decision to attend Loma Linda was one of the most God-ordained moments I ever had. I was really struggling with the decision of whether to stay in Canada for medical school or attend Loma Linda University. I was granted one of the few seats available to me at the University of Alberta, and at the same time I was accepted to Loma Linda. A $1,000 deposit needed to be paid at Alberta the next day, so I went for a long walk. Ellen White’s Medical Ministry and the Bible went with me. I sat and prayed and talked to God for a couple hours. I said, “Lord, what direction do you want me to take?” Up to that point I had been very confused, but by the time I came back home I had the strong impression that Loma Linda was the place for me to go to. I called Loma Linda, and my heart was at peace.
Once I was there, multiple things reaffirmed the decision. Within the first week I was on the wards as a freshman medical student. I knew absolutely nothing and was just watching and following along. The child neurology team that I was on had a Christian attending physician, and he made it a sincere practice to connect with his patients on a spiritual level and demonstrated and role-modeled that beautifully. I saw him pray with patients and witnessed the spiritual care with which he helped them come to very difficult medical decisions. It was really powerful. So it was an affirmation that Hey, I’ve come to the right institution to learn whole-person care and spiritual care, which was important for me.
And then from the missional standpoint, being on the campus and being able to connect with Dr. Hart (president of Loma Linda) particularly, but others, as well, with whom, to this day, I’m in communication. Dr. Hart has been a tremendous mentor to me in choosing a location that would be a good fit for both Allie and me. The other physician who’s been pivotal for me is Dr. Peter Landless, director of the General Conference Adventist Health Ministries Department. Over the years he has been a really huge role model for me and has taken a number of hours out of his time to mentor both Allie and me through this process.
I don’t believe that we would be doing what we are doing today had it not been for the Adventist educational system and our mentors. Allie was homeschooled all the way through grade 12 and then attended Southern Adventist University, where she had a very positive experience. Then she came to Loma Linda to start her master’s, and because of our marriage ended up switching to the University of Maryland, but again with the emphasis on international work.
Tell me a little bit more about how you understand Loma Linda’s mission program.
This is a beautiful example of stewardship: From the ’30s and ’40s onward, I think, Loma Linda sent out many different missionaries—hundreds of people around the world—and they started all these healthcare clinics and hospitals. Around the ’70s, Dr. Hadley, Sr., GC Health Ministries director at the time, saw the need to provide medical and dental graduates the opportunity to work at our Adventist institutions. At that time the cost of medical education was relatively low, and the financial barrier to going into the mission field was significantly less. Now, with the cost of student debt skyrocketing, it’s almost impossible for us to go to the mission field right away. So the church—Loma Linda and the General Conference—created a fund called the Deferred Mission Appointee Program, which facilitates graduates of both the dental school and medical schools to serve overseas in return for repayment of their loans. If it wasn’t for that, I would have had to work in a private practice first for several years to pay off my debt. By then I’d have established myself in suburban America, and it would have been so much more difficult to pack up and head overseas to serve in this capacity.
I didn’t know that. What a great plan! Does Loma Linda actively promote going into
It’s definitely part of the recruitment. I remember talking to recruiters quite a bit about it. I knew about the program and went into undergraduate studies knowing that I could enter the Deferred Mission Appointee Program once there. For Allie and me it was definitely a significant factor. In the classes, there’s an aspect of service and altruism through service that is very strong. The leadership at Loma Linda has said repeatedly that if it were not for our international physicians and our programs, we would have less reason to exist as an institution. So it’s vitally important that we expose our young people to mission opportunities, so that they have the opportunity to develop a desire to enter mission work. Likewise, the stories and experiences of physicians and other missionaries need to be related to those back home so they recognize the important stewardship role they play in serving the global community—from a missional and financial aspect—for the church.
To what extent does it benefit the local community in Nepal, for example, in terms
of training people there? Do they need extra training from the West? Also, since we
all learn from one another, what do you as a Westerner learn from the local context
That’s really a big thing for us—to first of all integrate into the culture as we learn to be incarnational missionaries. We will try to become as Nepali as possible, so we can learn from them and they can learn from us. It’s a bi-directional process. I come with a skillset from highly technical training, whereas they offer a very practical skillset. Here, we don’t have the labs, our patients can’t afford the testing that’s mostly recommended, so how are we going to treat the patient and his or her symptoms to the best of our ability? I can learn tremendously from my co-workers and physicians here—and I have already—about diseases, poisoning cases (we see a ton of poisoning here from chemicals); whereas, they’re very interested, for example, in learning from me how we treat diabetes and lung disease in the West. What’s exciting about our institution here is that we have a number of medical officers—physicians straight out of medical school who have not had the opportunity to go to residency yet, so we really have the opportunity to train the next generation of physicians.
It’s good to hear that there’s an interchange going on there with learning and training.
Yes. I have dual training at Loma Linda in business and in medicine, but the administrative aspects can be quite challenging here because you’re coming into a culture that is so different from your own. I just had an issue today
because of my not understanding the local social protocols, and I realized that I have a tremendous amount to learn about how to work within this culture in all respects.
Is our goal to work ourselves out of a job then? That is, to bring institutions to the
point where they are self-supporting?
I would hope so. I really think the only way institutions can survive long-term is through a self-sustaining model. One of the key goals of both myself and Dale Mole, D.O., the chief executive officer here who is also a physician, is to bring the technical skills and the training to help the local teams develop their skills, so they can effectively manage the institution.
Would you share a brief history of the hospital in Nepal?
The hospital was established in the 1960s by Dr. and Mrs. Stanley and Raylene Sturgis They’re now in their retirement in the United States. They came as a young couple straight out of medical school with their kids. They literally integrated into the society, lived with the village elders, had a clinic in one of the village elders’ homes, and from there the town built a small clinic. Then the town came together to decide what piece of property they would donate for a hospital, and it was sold to the hospital at that point for a nominal amount. Then the hospital was built. The Sturgis family was here for a total of five years. So they’ve had a very close connection with the hospital ever since.
In terms of the wholistic mission of the church, how are we reaching people with
We are living and working in an area that is predominantly Hindu, and we are respectful of their faith and religion. The Nepali constitution provides protection for freedom of worship. I believe that God has used, and is using, the healthcare ministry to bring many people to a knowledge of Him and His love. Many people would not have heard about Jesus if it were not for the hospital. Sharing the gospel in a closed country is really about friendship and building connections with people. What better way to do that than to actively care for each and every person who comes to the hospital.
What are the greatest needs of the hospital, as far as you currently understand them,
from a stewardship standpoint?
I think the greatest need for the hospital is actually just a strong prayer base at home. The good Lord owns the cattle on a thousand hills, as the Bible text says. He has resources—whether it’s through members within the church, government grants, whatever it may be, that can help the institution grow. We have a lot of infrastructure needs. We need to renovate a large portion of the hospital, and Lord willing, next year we’ll be able to win a large government-sponsored grant for renovation and renewal of the building. There is also value in ongoing strategic partnerships with other hospitals in the West that have donated technically and logistically to training and direct patient care here at the hospital. It’s those long-term relationships the hospital needs, based on a strong premise of prayer and many other kinds of support for the institution.
Thank you, Jonathon and Allie, for your dedication to the medical missionary work
of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. You and the hospital ministry will be in our
prayers. May the Lord bless your family and your ministry together with our Nepali
brothers and sisters there.
Pr. Pukar Shrestha came to know Jesus through the Seventh-day Adventist school
and the ministry of the hospital. He is connected with a local congregation near
Sheer Memorial hospital. He says:
“I enjoy interacting with people. I am an assistant chaplain, and at the same time I am working as a community health promoter, training missionaries and believers to make a difference in the community by being health-change agents.
“Any of the helping institutional organizations that we have—whether it's a school or a hospital or any other
—they are all established for the main goal of showing our beliefs, our practice, and the love of Christ to other people, which only can make a difference in their lives.
“Health ministry is one of the successful and useful tools in soul winning, as people’s health conditions are deteriorating daily. So, the hospital can really help the people and can significantly contribute toward the church and our activities. It's all about our influence in the community.”