Mission of mercy
Written by W. Evan Golder
October - November 2005
October 1, 2005

Indian missionary uses medical training, Christian faith to 'make a difference'

Morning rounds, Mungeli Hospital State of Chhattisgarh, India: The woman in bed 2 in the Intensive Care Unit was badly beaten by a crazed man and has been in a coma for one week. Hospital staff assesses her regularly, keeps her head up and administers appropriate IV medications. My wife, a retired ICU nurse, comments that except for possible high-tech monitoring, the patient will likely fare as well with this care, despite the very basic setting, as she would in a modern urban hospital.

From all appearances, Anil Henry "had it made." The American son of missionary parents, he was born and raised in India and became the first student at India's Kodaikanal International School to be accepted at the Christian Medical College in Vellore, India. Married to a doctor, an anesthesiologist, and with three children, he held a comfortable position as a surgeon in a large, urban U.S. hospital. He worked and took call during the week, had "great working conditions" with every weekend off, and traveled with his family over much of the eastern half of the United States.

But he wasn't happy.

"There was no joy in the work," he says. "There was no job satisfaction. I was working long hours and making good money, but I didn't see my family. I went to work and did my job, but I didn't make a difference."

Henry remembered the difference his parents had made in a rural hospital in India. In 1960, his mother, Nancy, a nurse, had "gone out" to India as a missionary. While there she met his father, V.K. Henry, an Indian physician. The two married, stayed in India and built a dying hospital into a huge, successful, 150-bed medical center.

"That was a magnificent achievement," he says. "This kind of service is really very special."

Both father and son had acquired their attitude of service from their respective parents. V.K. Henry's grandfather, Anil's great-grandfather, had been the son of a very devout Hindu, a Tiwari Brahmin, "at the top of the scale," says Anil Henry. But while at a Christian boarding school, he acquired Christian values, particularly about service. His father could not accept his wanting to become a Christian, and the boy left his family, converted to Christianity and became a Christian pastor.

Anil was in his father's operating room from about age 11 on, pushing gurneys, taking blood pressures, and driving patients home. By the eighth or ninth grade he knew he would go into medicine.

"I was pretty sure that I would be in some kind of service," he says. When being a surgeon in the States was no longer meaningful, he contacted Global Ministries — a common ministry of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the same agency that had sent his mother to India — to see if they could use his services. Within a year, the Henry family was on its way back to India, the second generation of this family to be commissioned by the Avon Lake (Ohio) UCC. Henry had been appointed to Mungeli Hospital, in a rural area in the center of the country.

The two boys in the general ward each have fractured femurs. The boy with the tousled hair and the huge smile fell from a tree and snapped his bone. The other boy had a bicycle accident and suffered a spiral fracture. His family tried local (unlicensed) doctors for three weeks before bringing him to the hospital. Hospital staff put the first boy in traction; his hospital stay will be about two weeks. After traction, the second boy will be put in a hip spica-cast to immobilize his hips until the femur heals, and sent home.

Anil Henry had never been to Mungeli, so he phoned his dad and asked him to check out the hospital. His father took a look and phoned back. "You wanted a challenge," he said. "Well, you've got it!"

The Henrys arrived in June 2003. It was monsoon season and their house had no roof. The campus was completely dark except for three bare light bulbs on the corners of one building. There were no screens. Snakes and mosquitoes were everywhere. There was no phone system, no mattresses, no linen.

"But we didn't have to worry about how to wash the laundry," he laughs.

From Project Cure, headquartered in Boulder, Colo., he acquired 50 beds, free except for shipping costs. His first purchase was $2,500 worth of mattresses. Next he paid off the outstanding electricity bill. Gradually, as money became available, he purchased a jeep, a phone system, an ultra sound, a generator, an auto-analyzer, a small X-ray machine and a cell counter.

"We have to go on faith," he says. "We don't have a budget. We treat patients first and ask about their financial resources later. As we have funds, we buy what we need next. But every month so far we have come out in the black."

Besides himself and his wife, Teresa, the medical staff consists of two other physicians, a dentist, four medical student volunteers from Copenhagen, Denmark, and a dozen nurses. Henry doesn't turn any patients away, and is careful to explain to them what he can and cannot do, and let them decide whether to stay for treatment or to go elsewhere. Most stay. They also bring their families, who assist with turning, walking, feeding and toileting the patients. They also sleep with the patients or under their beds. Henry has hired a contracting crew, which is constructing a dormitory for relatives of patients that will include cooking facilities and toilets.

Despite the flies, the dirt, the dust and the relatives, what needs to be sterile is sterile, for example, the operating theater, the surgical instruments and the incisions, and patients seem to get good care. And, according to the medical students, the rate of both post-operative infections and bed sores is very low, a standard even major metropolitan hospitals strive for.

The woman in bed 3 in the female ward is in her late 30s and came to the hospital with a white discharge. The doctor's exam showed erosions all over her cervix. Given a choice of medical management (prescription drugs over a period of time) or surgical management (a hysterectomy), she chose the surgery. Three or four women a week come to the hospital with similar complaints, most of them too poor to afford ongoing medication.

Anil Henry seems indefatigable. He starts his day at morning prayers in the hospital chapel and ends it late at night with a last look at the ICU patients. He is competent and confident, almost to the point of invincibility. Yet he also is mindful that to be successful, a hospital such as Mungeli's cannot rest on the shoulders of one person.

"We need to work seriously at increasing the leadership at the top," he says. Even as he trains medical staff, he's aware that, once trained, they may leave. One of his predecessors, for example, left, "went down the road and started his own hospital." "The main thing we need now is manpower," he says, "and a place to put them."

In the meantime, he does five to 20 surgeries a day, ranging from Cesarean sections to resetting bones to removing disfiguring birth defects. At the same time, running back and forth, the medical staff may see more than 120 outpatients a day.

This kind of medical ministry depends on an attitude of service, Henry feels. To him, that means "being able to identify a person in need. If you can't identify a person in need," he says, "then you don't do anything any different than what you did before and basically you live for yourself."

Does he see an end to the work here?

"I don't think there will be an end," he says. "You always have to look forward. And as long as you look forward, you know there's always something more to be done."

The man in bed 4 has diabetes and was just operated on for his fifth surgery, an ulcer on the bottom of his right foot that would not heal. As Henry was excising the ulcer, he quizzed the medical students as to why it hadn't healed. Then, as deftly as slicing cheese, he sliced skin from the man's thigh and grafted it over the ulcer on his foot. Now the man lies in bed as the doctor finishes rounds. The patient will be discharged after five days. Dr. Henry's work will go on.

The Rev. W. Evan Golder is Editor Emeritus of United Church News. 

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