Some may consider it rude to decline a drink from their host but, for Sister Elaine Kohls, politeness would have been too risky. The water her Ethiopian hosts offered to her was from the local river and, while some people believed “it tastes better” than water from a well, Sister Elaine was more concerned about what might be in the river water.
When she arrived at Attat Hospital in 1984, Sister Elaine was troubled to find that many beds were filled with people suffering from preventable diseases. Ailments as seemingly benign as diarrhea, worms and eye infections were killing some and causing permanent damage for others. Patients who suffered from repeated trachoma infections- a condition that can cause the eyelashes to turn inward- experienced corneal damage and eventual blindness. Many of the illnesses people endured could have been prevented if they drank clean water. Even the trachoma eye infections were an indirect result of unclean water, since the water attracts flies that spread the bacteria.
“Changes in the ways of doing takes time,” shares Sister Elaine. When Medical Mission Sisters (MMS) first arrived at Attat Hospital in 1969 and offered their neighbors clean water from their freshly dug well, their efforts were initially met with resistance. Over time, and with Sister Elaine’s determination and persistence, the first village well was completed in Koromea Village in 1986, and today there are 133 safe water sites in and around Attat, serving an estimated 144,300 people. With the water project, along with pit latrine use and public health outreach, the diseases that had plagued so many have declined with each passing year.
Sister Elaine recalls: “At first, as the program was started, we were told, ‘the children no longer die.’ As the program developed… we were told, ‘even the old people don’t die!’ Now we are told, ‘the poor do not get sick any more often than the rich!'”
Throughout the world those made poor, especially those who live in rural areas, are often at risk for diseases that could be prevented with clean water or, in other cases, with modern vaccines. In the mountains of Peru, a measles epidemic had intermittently attacked the pueblos of Caylloma since the 17th century. With each outbreak, nearly an entire generation of children would perish.
Until the 1980’s, the Peruvian government’s efforts to provide vaccinations to rural areas had been disorganized and ineffective, according to Sister Pat Gootee, who accepted the government’s invitation to oversee what would turn out to be a successful vaccination program.
A previous vaccination team had failed to warn people that a temporary sore would form in the injection spot, and parents were suspicious and fearful. Sister Pat recalls a few instances in which a child would run up to her and ask her to quickly give them an injection, before their parents could catch them. For one year, Sister Pat and a group of volunteers traveled around the entire province, building trust and administering the vaccine. As the women and men discovered that she was indeed someone they could trust, Sister Pat and her team were able to end a nearly 400-year-old plague.
Today in Pakistan, where federal funding for vaccinations isn’t always so easy to come by, MMS in the Lahore Community are nevertheless working against the odds to reduce the nation’s childhood mortality rates, offering a nutrition program as well as vaccines to fight diseases like tuberculosis, polio, measles, diphtheria and hepatitis B.
In so many ways, Medical Mission Sisters continue to carry the torch of MMS’s four founding Sisters, who carried the fire and flame in their hearts, and were determined to bring health and healing to those most in need.