Strongsville Doctor, Family, Make a Difference in Africa
The Chae family traveled to Gabon to heal bodies -- and spirits
Bongolo Hospital — located in the hot plains of West Africa — is rustic by U.S. standards, but to the poor seeking medical treatment in the country of Gabon, it is a beacon of hope.
To the Chae family of Strongsville, it is a life-affirming place of both medicine and faith.
“Really, the conviction is to service both physical and spiritual,” said Dr. John Chae, a rehabilitative medicine specialist at MetroHealth Medical Center. “Faith in Jesus Christ is what is most important to us.”
The Chae family has long been a part of the hospital’s success. Through Grace Church in Middleburg Heights, the Chaes have helped to support Bongolo for many years.
Two years ago, John and his wife, Linda, spent a week there so Dr. Chae could teach medical residents.
This summer, they returned with their younger son, Ryan, 17, an aspiring physician, to introduce the idea of rehabilitation to a culture that prides itself on stoicism.
“In Gabon, they understand surgery and medicine, but the idea of rehab isn’t something they see as treatment,” Chae said.
Patients at Bongolo Hospital travel up to two days to be seen by American doctors, arriving with conditions including AIDS, clubbed feet, trauma, malaria, tuberculosis, infected wounds, strokes and chronic pain.
A Christian hospital, Bongolo is staffed entirely by U.S. physicians looking to make a professional and spiritual difference in Africa, like Dr. Keir Thelander, who trains African surgical residents there.
While Thelander's surgical results have been encouraging, Chae said rehabilitative treatment could help patients recover more completely.
“We were able to take patients, including one with a spinal cord injury and one with a pelvic fracture, who had been in bed for months and get them walking again, which was very gratifying," Chae said.
But while the team, including physical and occupational therapists, arrived ready to help, they weren't prepared for the cultural obstacles to rehabilitation.
In the Gabonese culture, it is taboo to draw attention to oneself, so patients rarely speak of their injuries or ailments.
“It is not acceptable to say I am in pain, focus on me,” Chae said.
What’s more, because young people are taught to serve infirm family members, it is hard for patients to follow doctors’ orders to improve their mobility and strength.
“In the U.S., if someone had a stroke, we’d say, let’s train them to do things by themselves. In Gabonese culture, they want to help, but that gets in they way,” Chae said.
A Mission of Hope
With the help of MetroHealth, Chae hopes to have rehabilitation services established permanently at the hospital within the next three years.
As for the Chaes, they intend to go back to Gabon every two years, bringing different specialists to provide training in various areas of healthcare.
But the medicine is just part of the mission.
“Spiritually, this work helps me expand my view of what God is doing in the world and reminds me that God is just as interested in every person on this planet as He is in us," said Linda Chae, who coordinates the regular shipment of supplies to Bongolo.
Ryan, a senior at Strongsville High School, said the trip solidified his interest in pursuing a medical career.
“Watching what went on the hospital, I thought, this is something I want to do,” he said.
On a more personal level, Ryan was also inspired by the faith of the Gabonese people. “Even in their poverty, seeing how they relied on God, and had so much hope in that, it’s something you don’t see in America, even with all of our prosperity.”