True heroes are never self-proclaimed and are usually reluctant even when acknowledged by others. Rather, they are usually forged through an unsolicited event or sequence of challenges that calls forth an inner grit, skill, and determination. From those circumstances, often endured in silence and anonymity, comes a refining of character, a building of fortitude and inner peace that molds a life. These solid citizens among us are hesitant to be called out and identified as heroes, but it is important for the rest of us to know and acknowledge the characteristics that make them who they are. Let me tell you about three heroes who have come to my attention this month.
The first I want to reference is Gillian Seton. Just eight years out of medical school now, Gillian completed her five-year surgery residency at the University of Utah and accepted an assignment to work at Cooper Adventist Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia. She arrived in February 2014 and rapidly settled into a busy practice as the primary doctor at this small 25-bed hospital. As the summer of 2014 came on, rumors, then reports, started surfacing of Ebola infections from the countryside in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. The latter two countries had recently emerged from long and bloody civil wars, with much of their civil infrastructure still fractured. There was hardly a worse place to deal with what soon became a major epidemic with global significance.
As the infectivity and virulence of the Ebola virus became more evident, panic gripped the capital city of Monrovia. Those trying to care for these patients, both in the hospitals and at home, became infected themselves, with a high mortality rate. Soon the hospitals in the city started closing as workers became afraid to come to work or were consumed with caring for their own families. Our small staff at Cooper was exposed to the same concerns and fears, but determined to carry on. Finally, they were the only hospital caring for medical emergencies in this city of over one million, trying to assess patients in the parking lot to protect the staff and other hospitalized patients from Ebola. After several risky exposures despite all precautions, Gillian was offered a ticket home to protect herself. She refused, calmly stating, “When there is a need, you do what needs to be done.” Over the next year, through multiple exposures, forced temporary closures, and evacuations, she returned again and again to care for those in need.
Our School of Medicine senior class asked Gillian to be their speaker for commencement on May 29. Her message was short and powerful. She told of the challenges she faced personally and professionally as she watched a nation struggle and patients die despite her best care. She ended with three simple words of advice for our graduates. First, you are HUMAN. You will make mistakes and can’t do it all. Accept that and don’t let it defeat you. Second, you are not ALONE. Reach out to those around you, seek help, and reach up to our God for assistance. Finally, be BRAVE. It is amazing what the human spirit can accomplish when pushed to its limits. Our students thanked Gillian with a standing ovation. You may watch her talk on vimeo.com/169881888/03fe7d1920.
The second hero I want to call out is Sharmel Weerasinghe. She graduated from our School of Nursing in 2001 and settled into a busy life as wife, mother, and nurse in Loma Linda University Medical Center. The second son born to Sharmel and her husband, Jeevaka, was soon discovered to have a rare chromosomal disorder that made him autistic. As the full impact of this developmental challenge settled in, they began searching for answers in the public and private health and educational systems. Finding little support, Sharmel learned more and more about this disorder and concluded that her son and others had much greater potential than usually recognized, and she determined to give them a better chance at life.
So last year, with their son now 8 years old, Sharmel began the Precious Hearts Academy in downtown San Bernardino. With some support from the public school system, she assembled a group of volunteers and teachers and taught six precious children through the year, learning, experimenting and developing strategies and skills. They have a capacity for 30 students this coming year, and we are encouraging our own students to volunteer and assist with this incredible venture. What a testament to the love of a mother and the determination of a professional to make a difference where it is needed. See their story on their website preciousheartsacademy.org.
The final heroes in this list are my friends Jamie and Shallena Crounse. I first became acquainted with them during Jamie’s medical school days, as they came to our Oak Glen Fellowship many Sabbaths and shared their dreams of serving abroad. We watched their son Jedediah come into this world and develop as Jamie worked his way through a combined family and preventive medicine residency program here. Then they accepted a position at Malamulo Hospital in Malawi as Loma Linda was developing this site into a major teaching hospital. Next Abigail joined the family, and Jamie was asked to be medical director at Malamulo. His gentle spirit and understanding ways endeared him to the local people.
We were all shocked to hear the news that Shallena had developed breast cancer, but became hopeful again as we heard it was treated successfully and they returned to Malamulo. We rejoiced with the news of their third baby coming, and little Caleb was added to the family just a few weeks ago. Then came the devastating news that Shallena’s breast cancer had returned with a vengeance, rapidly advancing to stage 4 with metastases. With the courage that can only come from a deep faith and resilience, they are now facing an uncertain future as a family. Our hearts weep for the struggles this brings to them and the tough questions that must be answered. They will certainly fight with all the skill and energy given to us by God. The ever-widening prayer circle will hold them close as this story unfolds. You will be moved by Jamie’s understanding and compassion in his latest blog post.
True heroes, everyone. This is why Loma Linda grads ranked first in the nation when asked, “Does your job make the world a better place?” They are professionals, to be sure, but much more than that. They carry a passion and commitment that can only come from a sense of one’s role in this world and a recognition that God calls us to serve. Life is at its fullest when in that mode. Thank you Gillian, Sharmel and Jeevaka, Jamie and Shallena, for giving us that model of hope and courage in the face of adversity. Our prayers are with you.
Richard Hart, MD, DrPH
Office of the President, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, CA 92350
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