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Grand Forks family brings healing and hope through medical mission work

Kevin and Marsha Lange sit in their home with their daughter Rebecca and son Tim after returning from a mission trip to Ghana. (Photo by Kile Brewer/Grand Forks Herald)1 / 3
Kevin Lange, center, wears a scarf given to each member of his family by locals in Ghana during a recent mission trip. (Photo by Kile Brewer/Grand Forks Herald(2 / 3
Kevin, left, and his wife Marsha Lange returned recently from a mission trip to Ghana where they took their three children Rachel, Rebecca and Tim. (Photo by Kile Brewer/Grand Forks Herald)3 / 3

During her family’s recent medical mission trip to Ghana with her family, Rebecca Lange, 17, was changed by what she saw and experienced there, helping patients and playing with the children, she said.

Being in such an impoverished country — and interacting with its people — is very different from learning about it through books or other media.

“You can know it in your head, but when you’re there, you feel it in your heart.”

The cultural contrast between her life in Grand Forks and the lives of the Ghanaians she met left an indelible impression.

“I was struck by how happy everyone was,” she said. “They were joyful, and completely OK with what they have. They are content.

“So many people here have everything they need and are not content.”

After returning home, Rebecca was put off by the “petty” complaints her friends routinely log on Twitter, she said.

“Some people in Ghana may not have a meal every day.”

Rebecca “had never seen that level of poverty or malnutrition or chronic disease,” said her mother Marsha Lange, a family physician.

Marsha’s husband Kevin Lange and their other children, Rachel and Tim, also went to Ghana.

The Lange family participated in the mission trip through the Christian Medical and Dental Association, which is associated with Global Health Outreach. GHO organizes missions in medically underserved areas around the world.

They left Grand Forks on July 22 and returned Aug. 10, taking time to see some of the country’s notable sites.

“We hung out with warthogs, baboons and elephants a couple of days then hit the beach,” Marsha said.

They chose Ghana because for “at least a decade” Rebecca has wanted to do something with orphans in Africa, she said.

No medical care

The Langes were part of a health care team that spent three days each in two remote villages, Agbadzakofe and Torve, where medical care is nonexistent. The team included four physicians, a nurse, a pharmacologist, two medical students and an emergency medical technician.

The family has also taken two trips to Nicaragua through CMDA, Marsha said. Ghana was the most “out there” in terms of their comfort zone.

They worked in make-shift clinics, set up in school buildings, where several local residents, mostly pastors, served as interpreters.

In six days, the mission team members saw almost 2,000 patients who presented with a range of diseases, some of them foreign to Marsha.

“We saw diseases we never see in America, such as malaria — I’d never treated that before — and leprosy which, when I was a med student, I thought I’d never see,” she said.

Some patients had tropical diseases, such as “river blindness” caused by a water-borne parasite that lodges in the eye.

Rebecca encountered children with scabies, a highly contagious skin disease, marked by an itchy rash.

“I love the kids — that’s what I was excited for,” she said. “I’m not going to say, ‘I’m not going to play with you; I’m not going to touch you.’ ”

She didn’t contract the disease, she said.

Rebecca helped her brother Tim, 16, do “triage” work, which included meeting patients, writing down their medical complaints for the doctors, and taking pulse and blood pressure readings.

Kevin and Rachel, 19, assisted the pharmacologist by sorting and counting pills and distributing vitamins and prescribed medications to patients.

They handed out a lot malaria medications — pills that had “different strengths for little kids, adolescents and adults,” Kevin said.

Kevin is a road-grader for Grand Forks County. Rachel is a pre-veterinary medicine student who is attending college in Florida.

‘Striking malnutrition’

Along with other doctors, Marsha treated patients suffering from “malaria, striking malnutrition, worms (internal parasites), and tons of back pain from subsistence farming,” she said.

The Ghanaians’ use of a short-handled tool to work their crops forces them to bend over for hours at a time, causing what locals call “waist pain.”

High blood pressure is a huge problem, she said.

“There were a lot of worms,” she said. It was quite likely that “skinny kids, who looked pregnant, had worms.”

The lack of a clinical laboratory “made for more guesswork than anything I’m used to,” she said.

To be confronted with cases for which her team did not have proper equipment to diagnose and treat them was frustrating, she said. Such equipment and expertise was available in an urban center but patients could not afford the cost to get there.

Some patients were referred to a hospital in the region.

Marsha and the other doctors did not see evidence of the Ebola outbreak that struck in other West African countries, she said. The cases were not discovered until close to the end of their visit to Ghana.

At the time, the cases were diagnosed in an area that “was about as far away as Grand Forks is to central Montana,” Marsha said.

Practicing differently

She appreciated the opportunity to practice medicine differently than in the United States, including caring for patients under a shade tree.

“I really love practicing medicine in different settings like this,” she said.

“Usually, as a physician, you’re cooped up in a building. You’re fine-tuning chronic diseases.”

She was able to see people with major health troubles “and do something simple” that would solve their problems, she said. “It’s rewarding.”

In the U.S., too often doctors “spend more time filling out tons of paperwork and talking with insurance companies and bureaucrats” than treating patients, she said.

As part of a Christian mission group in Ghana, she also enjoyed the opportunity to pray with her patients, she said. Some of their symptoms weren’t due to physical problems but were caused by “stress or heartbreak.”

“It’s estimated that one-third of the time, when someone sees a primary care physician, it’s for spiritual or social reasons, or they’re lonesome.

“If you tell people that (in America) they get mad at you. The tools we have to treat that don’t work …

“Faith is part of life there,” she said.

After seeing a physician, patients proceeded to a “power house” where pastors gave them counseling and spiritual comfort before they went on to the pharmacy, Kevin said.

Ghanaians are more open to the healing of the mind and spirit that may underlie a physical complaint, Marsha said.

In the United States, people are more inclined to say “give me a pill to take,” Marsha said. “America is much more mechanistic.”

“There’s a totally different mindset there,” Rebecca said.

Gratifying work

The most gratifying aspect of the trip, Tim said, was “just to see how (we) impacted people, and to know we helped people there.”

Medical mission work “is a good thing for anyone who’s going into health care to do,” Marsha said.

“In the health care field, it’s easy to become cynical. (Mission work) is a great antidote to cynicism.”

Those who may consider a trip of this kind “think they are going to suffer,” Marsha said. “But it’s so much fun. The people are good to each other.”

Ghanaians “are more welcoming and appreciative of what you do for them,” Kevin said.

He and Marsha said it will be “interesting” to see how the experience will affect the lives of their children, including their career choices.

Kevin said, “You feel so much rewarded … We’re so glad we did go. It was probably our last chance to do this as a family.”

“I think we got more out of it than the patients,” Marsha said.

Knudson covers health and family. Call her at (701) 780-1107, (800) 477-6572 ext.1107 or email