Samaritan’s Purse performs 90 cleft lip repair surgeries in South Sudan, transforming lives forever in the Name of Jesus Christ
One by one, they exited the Samaritan’s Purse DC-3 airplane at Juba International Airport, each step physical confirmation that they had finally arrived on solid ground in South Sudan’s capital city.
Men, women, and children wobbled down the staircase as if they were just learning to walk, their eyes blinking hard as they adjusted to the bright morning sun.Give To Help Repair Cleft LipsThese 20 weak-kneed patients and their caregivers had just endured a two-hour flight from Maban County in the northern part of the country—the first group to arrive as part of a cleft lip surgery program Samaritan’s Purse was conducting in the world’s newest nation.
None had ever flown in an airplane before. This was the first time they had watched the ground drop out of a window and experienced their stomachs jump into their throats.
And yet, fear of the unknown was not about to stop them, or the five groups that followed over the course of six days, from receiving a surgery that would repair their misshapen smiles and change their lives forever.
As patients continued to arrive at the airport each day, one caregiver was asked why he would climb on a plane for the first time ever to visit a city he had only heard about.
“All of this has been strange, but we are not afraid,” said Makuei Deng, whose youngest daughter was scheduled to undergo surgery. “We see Samaritan’s Purse as people of God and trust that they will do good for us.”
Reaching Far and Wide
The trust of Makuei and hundreds of other cleft lip patients has been earned over the years.
“This is the third year we have been able to perform these surgeries in South Sudan,” said Karen Daniels, a registered nurse who has helped coordinate the Samaritan’s Purse program since it began in 2011. “We have 103 scheduled, which means lots of work ahead of us. But God is faithful. He will get us through.”
Planning and conducting a medical outreach of this size can be a challenge anywhere, but in South Sudan it can be nearly impossible. That’s because it’s a country the size of Texas with just 30 miles of roads. Simply getting the word out was a monumental task.
“We ran radio ads, flyers were printed and distributed, and we partnered with other NGOs to find candidates who might benefit from this type of surgery,” Karen said. “We did everything possible to reach people across the country.”
The response was slow at first, but by the time surgeries were about to begin, Karen’s cell phone constantly buzzed with last-minute calls. Knowing that she had only six days to work with, Karen did all she could to accommodate late additions, but eventually she ended up with a list of more than 40 patients who would have to wait another year for surgery.
“It’s hard to say no,” Karen said, “but in the end, we only have so many hours in a day. We already ask so much of this team.”
Karen was referring to the surgeons, nurses, and anesthesiologists from North America who volunteer with Samaritan’s Purse, donating their time and talents for 10 days. Though the time is short and their days are long, this is a medical mission each team member makes room for in their busy schedules.
Dr. Jim Wade, who recently retired from his practice in Abingdon, Virginia, was brought in three years ago as a consultant to help Samaritan’s Purse design the cleft lip surgery program. He’s made it a priority to come back every year.
“It’s always good to come back, it’s the most rewarding surgery I’ve ever done,” he said. “This opens the door for ministry. Patients are willing to hear the message because what we have done for them adds credibility to what we are sharing.”
Joining Dr. Wade was Dr. Thomas Boeve, an ear, nose, and throat surgeon. After serving as a full-time missionary for two years at Kijabe Hospital in Kenya, Dr. Boeve recently returned to the United States where he practices in Beloit, Wisconsin. And yet his heart continues to be in Africa.
“My time in South Sudan is one of the most, if not the most gratifying weeks of my entire year,” he said. “It has been a true blessing to be part of this team and this program.”
The newest surgeon addition to the team was Dr. Cynthia Gregg, who specializes in facial plastics. She has participated in several short-term medical mission trips with her husband and their two children. Dr. Gregg was excited to join the team and experience a new challenge.
“I’m anxious about being the weak link, but I’m excited to be pushed out of my comfort zone and to rely on God.”
Along with the medical team, Samaritan’s Purse must supply everything that is needed for a week of cleft lip operations—equipment, medical instruments, and even simple materials like gauze. All that could be provided was a single operating room at Juba Teaching Hospital, along with three operating tables and a handful of beds in a patient ward.
Taking to the Skies
Before our team could even begin operating, the patients needed to be brought to the hospital in Juba. Considering they lived all across the country, this required yet another staggering logistical effort unique to this program, the only one of its kind conducted in South Sudan.
Fortunately Samaritan’s Purse has been flying in this region of Africa for more than a decade. Air support began when we first arrived in Sudan to provide humanitarian aid in 2002 and has continued in South Sudan ever since the country gained independence in 2011.
Our fleet, which includes a DC-3 cargo plane, flies daily routes to deliver supplies and support to our regional bases. These aviation services are a crucial part of our cleft lip surgery program.
Crisscrossing the country to transport nearly 200 patients and caregivers, the DC-3 logged 41 flight hours and traveled 7,187 miles, while the Cessna Caravan plotted 17 flight hours and journeyed 2,369 miles.
Our pilots and crew understand that these miles go a long way to ministering to cleft lip patients and their caregivers.
“We’re kind of removed from the action, but we still have an opportunity to reach these people with the Gospel,” said Sandi Stoltzfus, whose husband Brian flies the DC-3 while she cares for the passengers during their trips.
Appreciating the delicate condition of these passengers when returning home is especially important, which is why the pilots fly about 2,000 feet below the typical cruising altitude. “These special passengers have been under anesthesia and we take that into consideration,” Brian said. “Flying at 11,000 feet helps reduce headaches and dizziness.”
The pilots aren’t the only ones who take time to share the healing power of God’s great love. Samaritan’s Purse partners with local pastors who believe this program is a great way to reach fellow countrymen who live so far away.
“God designed this opportunity for us to be able to reach people from so many different parts of South Sudan,” said Justin Diwiri, who is also studying clinical medicine to become a medical assistant. “We can reach so many of our brothers and sisters who would otherwise be difficult to find because of their remote locations.”
Justin, along with three other pastors, bounced from bed to bed, translating for doctors and nurses, helping perform examinations, and walking patients and caregivers to surgery. Justin did all of this because he cares, but also to earn a hearing for the Gospel.
“People are open to accepting Christ because of the medical miracle being performed on them,” he said.
Justin helped at least 40 people to ask Jesus Christ to be the leader of their lives and many others to further their walk in faith. They even held a ceremony where the charms and idols collected from former non-believers were burned to signify that their faith was now in Christ and not in superstitious beliefs.
“Patients arrive looking sad, they cannot live a normal life, and many don’t know Christ,” Justin explained. “They leave happy and healed, many receiving Christ and others growing stronger in their relationship with God.”
A New Beginning
Makuei waited quietly under a mango tree in the hospital courtyard as his young daughter Nyagun underwent surgery to repair her cleft lip.
Prior to the operation, Makuei had said his baby girl was forbidden to attend school and that children abused her, calling Nyagun names and hitting her. People in his community even believed that Nyagun was possessed by evil spirits. Despite all of this, Makuei had great faith in God and Samaritan’s Purse.
“I have seen God at work through this program,” he said. “I have been praying to God that He would help and heal my daughter. And today He will.”
But now Makuei patiently sat, his face like etched stone, unwilling to betray any creases of fear or anxiety he might be feeling as the minutes gathered like fallen fruit under that mango tree.
Finally he was called into the recovery room. He entered slowly and silently. Makuei searched among the wires and oxygen masks for his daughter until his dark, sunken eyes fell on Nyagun lying on her bed.
Makuei’s hard expression crumbled as a wide, toothless smile exploded across his face. He gazed lovingly at the full, swollen lip that stretched perfectly across the face of his youngest child. He sat down on the bedside as she began to open her eyes.
“She is beautiful,” he said, almost inaudibly. “I am so happy. Her mother will be so happy.”
Nyagun was given a mirror. She carefully studied her reflection, gently touching her lip to help her mind comprehend the dramatic transformation. Nyagun could not believe her eyes. Staring back at her was a bright future filled with hope and possibilities.
The next chapter for Nyagun and 89 other cleft lip patients has been written. But many more men, women, and children in South Sudan are waiting to have their smiles repaired. You can be part of their story through the Samaritan’s Purse gift catalog, where the gift of repairing cleft lips gives people of all ages these same life-changing operations.