The Warm Heart of Africa

April 20, 2020 • Malawi
Dr. Alyson Denson shared God's love and brought healing to people in Malawi through her work at Nkhoma Mission Hospital.
Dr. Alyson Denson shared God's love and brought healing to people in Malawi through her work at Nkhoma Mission Hospital.

Kindness—given and received—creates lasting memories for a pediatrician who volunteered in Malawi through World Medical Mission.

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Barely breathing, Stephano was on the verge of a diabetic coma by the time his family brought him to Nkhoma Mission Hospital, several hours away from their village in Malawi. The patient wasn’t the typical elderly individual who had suffered for years with the disease. Instead, he was a fragile 11-year-old boy whose short life appeared to be ebbing away.

Dr. Alyson Denson with the staff at Nkhoma Mission Hospital.

Dr. Alyson Denson with staff at Nkhoma Mission Hospital.

Dr. Alyson Denson, a pediatrician from Texas, and the staff at Nkhoma jumped into action. As a first-time volunteer with World Medical Mission who was experiencing her first trip to Africa, the scene played out much differently from what Denson was accustomed to in the United States.

“Typically we would be in an ICU with blood sugar checks almost constantly, IV drips, and an abundance of labs. Here we were armed with some fluids, insulin to give in shots, and a glucometer. My palms were sweaty for hours,” Dr. Denson shared in her blog.

“On top of all that, this child was severely malnourished. We usually give lots of fluids to patients with diabetic ketoacidosis, but with malnourishment this can lead to heart failure and fluid in the lungs,” she continued. “You can go too slowly and not correct their delirious state or go too fast and cause brain swelling. We all put our heads, and books, and calculators together. All afternoon we did not see much change. We headed into the evening.”

More tense hours followed, but finally Stephano awoke and his vital signs stabilized. Regulating his blood sugar would be the next hurdle. For now, Denson breathed a little easier too as she watched signs of life return to her young patient.

These young patients are thrilled to receive some special sunglasses.

These young patients are thrilled to receive some special sunglasses.

During her 10-week stay at Nkhoma Mission Hospital, Denson treated children for illnesses such as malaria, tuberculosis, and meningitis. In some cases, she was introduced to diseases that she had learned about in medical school 25 years ago but never seen in practice until now.

Although Stephano’s story had a happy ending, other youngsters did not walk out of the hospital and return home to their families. Denson said her greatest challenge was the emotional toll of losing babies and children almost every day.

“I had to perform CPR more times in Malawi than during my entire career in the United States,” she explained. “There was so much death. In pediatric practice at home, it is such a rare occurrence to see death, and we feel fairly in control as physicians. That’s not medicine in Malawi.”

“Working with such limited resources, I was reminded of how completely reliant I am on God,” she said.

Committed to Serving God

Denson is not a newcomer to missions—or to witnessing hardship and suffering. Since medical school, she has gone on more than 15 mission trips to Central America. She also spent a month in Haiti immediately following the 2010 earthquake, where she served in a post-op hospital treating children with broken bones and amputations. Each experience deeply stirred her heart.

Dr. Denson spent a month in Haiti immediately following the 2010 earthquake.

Dr. Denson spent a month in Haiti immediately following the 2010 earthquake.

The previous year she had stepped away from the demanding schedule of her pediatric practice, feeling the need to spend more time with her husband, Wayne, and their two pre-teen sons, Chase and Brett. When their efforts to adopt an orphaned Haitian child fell through, God surprised them with the opportunity to adopt a brother and sister, LeAnna and Alex, from Russia.

The physician resumed work, enjoying a more flexible schedule at a children’s clinic and teaching pediatrics courses at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Medicine and motherhood kept her busy, but Denson was able to squeeze in several two-week mission trips to Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Denson and her husband became “empty-nesters” in 2018, prompting her to once again step back from a full-time career, this time in order to pursue a more active role in medical missions.

That desire led her to contact World Medical Mission and see if there was a place of great need where she could go on a longer assignment.

“I told them wherever God can use me, that’s where I will go. But when they asked me about Malawi, I didn’t even know where it was. I had to google it,” she chuckled.

Located in southeastern Africa, Malawi is one of the poorest and least developed nations on earth. More than half of its 18 million inhabitants live below the poverty line, and 25 percent live in extreme poverty.

“Wherever God can use me, that’s where I will go.”

But the country is also known as the “warm heart of Africa,” with exceptionally kind and friendly people. Denson found that the patients and staff at Nkhoma Mission Hospital lived up to that reputation. Despite the language barrier (many patients spoke Chichewa), she was able to show God’s love to the children and their parents.

One of the highlights of her experiences in Malawi was the day Stephano, her young diabetic patient, was discharged. It took weeks for his blood sugars to reach the target range.

After coaching his family on the specifics of administering insulin and checking and recording blood sugar levels, Denson had a parting gift for Stephano—a soccer ball and pump.

“Stephano was so excited that he looked like he was going to explode. His family was incredibly grateful and emotional in their saying goodbye,” she recalled. “I am on cloud nine to have a critically ill patient going home and doing well.”

The inevitable goodbyes to hospital staff and the medical students and residents she befriended made leaving Nkhoma difficult. But Denson rejoices that she was able to share life and the Gospel with so many wonderful people.

“I am certainly leaving a part of my heart in Nkhoma!”

“Today, I looked around and saw Malawi differently,” she journaled on her last day. “It is different because I am different. This is not a people that intimidates or intrigues me anymore. They are a people I have a deep affinity and respect for. They are tough, strong, and tenacious, but they are also happy, kind, and welcoming. They are the warm heart of Africa, and I am certainly leaving a part of my heart in Nkhoma!”

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World Medical Mission World Medical Mission was established in 1977 to assist general surgeons who wanted to volunteer for short-term mission trips. Today, hundreds of volunteer Christian physicians, dentists, and other medical personnel work in mission hospitals and clinics around the world. We also staff a biomedical department and warehouse that provides critically needed equipment and supplies to these medical facilities.

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