I’m finally ready to talk about it now, to go back to that moment of Naomi’s Village.
It was a late April night in 2009, on an unlit stretch of rural Kenyan highway, and our family was returning from an an exhausting 4 week US trip. I sat weary eyed in the front passenger seat, staring at the oncoming darkness, replaying the heavy blows of the sharp, hurtful words again. The email had come on Easter Sunday morning, a week or so past, and had torn open mine and Julie’s hearts.
Just 8 months removed from uprooting our family from all we loved in Flower Mound, TX, to move to rural Kijabe, Kenya, because of the power of a greater affection, I now felt cratered. There seemed no solace in any thought for very long. We knew God had called, the greater affection was Christ, but we had not counted these costs.
The droning hum of the van on rough pavement was occasionally broken up by the pleasant sound of Emily, age 11, asking a question. Will, now 10, dozed peacefully. We had tried to shelter them from hardships in those earlier years at 156 Red Oak Lane, giving them an idyllic place to paint the memories of a childhood on. But ever since we had come here, they had bravely faced an ever growing number of new challenges.
As I mulled over the month stateside, the blur of activity, running from home to home, church to restaurant, store to event, never resting, I knew that I no longer belonged back in Texas. That thought grieved me, the notion that I now was a fish out of water in the place of my youth. Yet I hadn’t fully embraced Kenya either.
I felt confused by cultural differences, embarrassed by my frustration with Kenyans in the hospital, even lonely. Still there had been those moments, shot through with glory, when God had been near and powerful. Doubt about coming to Kenya to begin with never took hold, but I’ll admit as I dragged my tail back after this furlough, I had precious little joy left.
And then, out of nowhere, she appeared.
A listless, thin, young lady with a face like an apparition, walked calmly down the road headed for the front of the van. Her placid expression never changed, nor did her slow deliberate course towards impending disaster. She was not crossing the highway, but ambling in the center of our lane, resolutely staring at our oncoming headlights as if to say, “Oh, well.”
Our driver never steered away, only braking partially. The last thing I saw was her wincing slightly as the sickening impact of her face shattered the windshield directly in front of my own. Involuntarily I recoiled and began moaning loudly, covering my face with both hands. The little stranger had flown about 15 feet to the front left of us, and now lay motionless on the roadside.
Emily’s screams and crying pierced the peace that had been ours, perhaps just a mirage, a false comfort we had held on to for so long. She had witnessed it all. Will also woke up and began to wail. Julie’s eyes had been averted at the crucial moment, a grace of sorts, but as she tried to console, to comfort, her young ones had slipped on by, grown up a bit in seconds. They say innocence can be lost. Perhaps, but maybe it’s not worth protecting, fighting for, at all costs. There can be great value in the risky times, the painful days, the trials of many kinds.
The driver broke up the chaos by doing the most unexpected thing. He hit the gas and took off. I started with asking out of confusion, “Why are we leaving?”, only to be told, “She’s dead.” Next I tried pleading, “But I’m a doctor! Let me check! Let me help her! She could be alive!” He kept driving, saying, “If we go back, we could be attacked by a mob. We will go home and call the police.” This would mean another hour at least before anyone rendered aid, so finally my anger boiled and I began yelling his name and saying, “Turn the vehicle around!! Now!!” After about 3 times, with the kids crying loudly in the back, he relented.
We arrived back on the windy escarpment road next to her still body. As the headlights shone on her, she moved very slightly. I jumped out, assessed her, and found she was breathing and had a pulse. Though completely unresponsive with a severe head injury, she was alive!
I remember the frantic decision to call a faithful friend, Steve, to come help. We could not offload women and kids and luggage on a dark roadside to lay her across the back seats, and the van was packed solid. Steve jumped out of bed at midnight, arrived on site in 25 minutes, and helped us get her down the bumpy road to Kijabe Hospital in his Land Cruiser. I knelt on the floorboard the whole way, stabilizing her head and neck, praying she would survive.
My friend Dr. Bird, an Aussie surgeon, met me in the ER and began to work on reviving her. IV lines, oxygen, catheters, lab tests…all the while she lay there looking dead, never opening her eyes.
Within 20 minutes of arrival, she crashed. Seizures, a blown pupil, declining vitals, all were signs of increasing pressure inside her skull. Her brain swelled rapidly, forcing itself out the small opening at the skull’s base, the foramen magnum. Her life was ending in front of everyone.
Dr. Bird rushed her to the OR, creating several emergency holes in the top of her cranium with a high speed burr, a drastic last ditch attempt to let some fluid out and reduce pressure. She had a breathing tube inserted and was given an ICU bed, with little prognosis of recovery.
For 4 days, our family visited her there daily, praying at her bedside. My children spoke to God earnestly, believing, yearning for her not to die.
And then we stumbled in on the 4th day to find her sitting up, without the breathing tube, talking in Kamba, her native tongue. Miracles are notable for one thing in particular—they are miraculous enough that you just have to accept them. The nurses said without any warning, any gradual improvement, she simply reached up and yanked her tube out and began speaking.
In their amazement, they did recall her telling them her name. Angelina, which means “messenger”, ended up staying in Kijabe Hospital for 6 weeks, where she actually got plump eating so well and awaiting an imaginary relative to take her home. We became her friends until the day when we found her bed empty. She had finally gone back to her home area.
When the crash first happened, I was mad at God. Did He really need to let that tragedy befall us as well, after we were so beaten down already? Later when she survived, I rejoiced at my God’s power, His mercy, His faithfulness to answer our cries for help.
And then as the next 5 years passed, I never fully recovered from the actual trauma of meeting Angelina face to face through cracked “safety glass”. I could not connect the growing symptoms I was suffering to that event. Nightmares, flashes of violent images during the day, anger, irritability, jumpiness, poor memory, decreased attention span – I suffered all of these at one time or another during the course of a busy and productive ministry.
Then finally in early 2014, as I prepared to teach our NV caregivers about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in children, I stumbled upon an article about PTSD symptoms in adults. The list seemed to read me perfectly. I started treatment, talked to others going through the same issues, and finally found some healing. PTSD is real, but very treatable, and is now in my rear view mirror.
I may never forget that moment in time. The darkness opened, a messenger walked out, she crashed into me, and change came with her. We both recovered from our wounds to live again, to grow fat with the mercies of God. Naomi’s Village entire ministry has sprung up since that fateful night. I have gained a resolute toughness in the 5 years since that has allowed me to press on and know God in ways I never would have if I had not seen His power during that 4 days when he saved Angelina.
In reflecting on this with other believers, it seems that we who are called by His name are constantly being broken and made new again, reformed and refined, crushed and then restored, taken through deep valleys and then on to soaring peaks. And when we listen with hearts tuned to hear, He speaks through the most unusual of messengers sometimes, and guides us home, both here and on that final Day.