March 04, 2014

MISSION MATTERS: Unpredictable Love

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Martin Schmidt, M. D., delivered this address as a newly-inducted Honorary Member of Alpha Sigma Nu, the Jesuit Honor Society, at the Induction Ceremony on Feb. 2. It clearly addresses the Mission of the University, and we are happy to reprint it in Mission Matters.

Kamuga School sits at the top of a hill in the highlands of western Kenya near Lake Victoria. The countryside is a patchwork of ancestral plots where subsistence farming has been practiced for centuries. The soil is rich with volcanic ash and the proximity to Lake Victoria ensures enough rainfall to produce healthy crops twice yearly. This, however, is Africa, where a combination of struggles throughout the millennia (climate changes, disease, Islamic discovery, Christian discovery, slavery, colonialism, wars of independence) have predictably combined to make progress slow and poverty endemic. Then, in the 1980s, came a most unwelcome visitor.

I was a student at Saint Louis University during the 80s, both as an undergraduate and in medical school. It was a fairly predictable path as two brothers, a father, an uncle and a grandfather had walked the same trail. In med school, we were just beginning to unlock the mysterious HTLV III virus that was so concerning for what we called the 4H Club — homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin addicts and Haitians — who were dying in alarming numbers from this new virus. By the time I completed my residency in pediatrics at Cardinal Glennon, I had witnessed the deaths of many hemophiliacs and some infants who succumbed to what we were now calling HIV/AIDS.

When I joined a successful, busy private pediatric practice, HIV/AIDS became more of a news item. I followed the story casually, as most did, hearing the statistics, and seeing the social and political ramifications on TV. But I was occupied mostly with starting and raising a family, caring for patients and running a business. My life was a series of patient visits, hospital meetings, soccer games, basketball games, family vacations — it was a good and predictable life.

Dr. Mark Kline was an infectious disease specialist while I was a resident at Cardinal Glennon and a favorite of mine. In 2007, as the director of the Baylor International Pediatric Aids Initiative, he came to present a Grand Rounds at Glennon. I attended hoping to meet with him afterwards, exchange the predictable pleasantries and go on with my life.
I walked out of the auditorium changed forever.

In 2004:

  • 40 million cases of HIV/AIDS worldwide
  • Two out of three (26 million) of those cases were in sub-Saharan Africa
  • Women were two-and-a-half times more likely to be infected
  • 90 percent of new cases in kids were transmitted by birth
  • Only 1 percent had access to meds - virtually none were children.

Those were simply the statistics. The reality of those numbers is that an entire generation of Africans was wiped out by a virus, and with them the very fabric of society leaving the elderly to care for the very young, the young to care for the much younger, and the knowledge passed down for a multitude of generations lost. HIV/AIDS was decimating an entire continent, especially its children. I could not in good conscience not act on what I had learned.

Thereafter followed a series of very unpredictable events. Two student nurses who worked part-time in my office for less than a year went on a medical mission trip to Bolivia with an organization called Project Helping Hands. After raving about their experience, I went to the PHH website and found that they were partnering with another organization called Hope Teams International on a medical mission to Kenya to serve a community where Hope Teams had undertaken the care of over 100 HIV/AIDS orphans. It was a one-time collaboration. In 2010 on another mission with Hope Teams, I lost my passport necessitating a seven-hour drive back to Nairobi where an unfathomable chain of events that I can only explain through divine intervention led to not only the recovery of my passport, but a conversation regarding the chief peanut growing area in Kenya — the area around Kamuga School. That fall, the only time a PHH conference has been held in St Louis, one of the presenters was Dr. Mark Manary, of Washington University, who had developed a peanut-butter based nutritional food that was dramatically changing the treatment of malnourished children in Malawi.

Manary's product was an answer to the problem of treating malnourished children in third-world countries. Prior to his peanut-butter based option, starving children were treated in hospitals, where with two or three children in the same bed they usually acquired infections due to their weakened state and died. His combination of peanut butter, powdered milk, powdered sugar, vegetable oil and vitamin or mineral powder contained no water, thus dramatically decreasing the contamination possibilities and allowed children to be treated in their homes away from ill contacts. Now, with a regimen of bi-weekly clinics, more than 90 percent of moderately to severely malnourished children are cured permanently within 8 to 12 weeks.

It was this meeting, and all the amazingly unpredictable events that led up to it, that inspired me to create OKS Inc., a nonprofit organization providing funds for the manufacture and distribution of peanut-butter based nutritional food for the children of western Kenya. OKS (for Oikos Karanga Siagi — or Oikos Peanut Butter) works with the Kenyan Nonprofit Oikos Families of Hope. Oikos, along with Hope Teams International, provides support for HIV/AIDS orphans in the area around Kamuga School until they graduate from high school. We employ those graduates who don't have other opportunities to manufacture and distribute our product, and we support the local farmers with a steady market for their product. We hope to eventually create a network of small operations throughout this underserved area where an estimated 50,000 children under the age of 5 are malnourished.

Why? And why me? My life has taken a turn during the past seven years that I never would have imagined. My very predictable life has now become unpredictable in the blink of an eye. But I'm also happier and more fulfilled than I have ever been. Why?

I was never a particularly spiritual person nor service oriented for that matter. My parents encouraged me in my faith journey from my church experiences in the liberal, free thinking United Church of Christ and my grade school and high school years in the dogmatic and literal Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Then came a Jesuit education at SLU — both liberal and dogmatic! What a mess! I struggled for years trying to figure out a theology that made sense to me, but I was never satisfied — until Africa.

Africa changed me by opening my eyes and heart and simplifying my thoughts. For some the experience of extreme poverty is depressing, for me it was transforming. I embraced the lesson of "what you do unto the least of these my brethren, you do unto Me" and realized that in each person I was serving, I was staring into the eyes of God. And God was there — and Love was there. The people I serve are the poorest of the poor, yet they are happier than you or I and their love simply washes over you. It is an addictive drug that makes me a better person, not worse. The more I give, the more I get in return and I've finally realized that the answer I had been looking for had been there all along, hidden under layers and layers of opinions and dogma and philosophy and my utterly predictable life. All I ever really needed to know was the first lesson I had been taught — God is Love.

Many believe that God has a plan. That everything has been mapped out in advance and we are simply playing out our roles in His very predictable scheme. I don't care to know the answer to that question.

I choose to believe that God is Love, and when one embraces God as Love our humanly predictable lives can become divinely unpredictable.

Keep your minds open, and your senses sharp. Don't be scared to take a chance. Don't be afraid of the unknown.

Don't be fearful of unpredictability, especially when you embrace it with Love.

— Martin Schmidt, M. D., St. Louis Pediatrician, SLU Undergraduate, SLU School of Medicine

Higher purpose. Greater good.
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