Nine year-old Merris has the kind of smile that lights up a room, a smile that gives no indication that she has been living with a life-altering injury in her rural village on the distant outskirts of Kitwe, Zambia.
Next week, a group of doctors with the support of a local ministry group will attempt to perform surgery on her disfigured arm, effectively saving her hand, and changing Merris’s life for the better.
Merris’s injury is a severely contracted hand — the result of a snakebite — that without surgery would end with the loss of her left hand. A local ministry group had hoped to bring Merris to the United States on Tuesday, October 14, with the goal of having pre-surgical testing completed by Wednesday, and the surgery, performed by Dr. James Brady at Southampton Hospital, on Thursday. Unfortunately, a delay in the Zambia passport office early this week will likely push the surgery back.
Regardless of the delay, the mission to save Merris’s arm will move forward next week, and is not the first, and certainly not the last, time a band of local doctors and the RaphaEl Ministries will attempt to better the lives of others — the heart of their operation.
RaphaEl Ministries is overseen by the Community Bible Church in Noyac and was founded by Dr. Scott Silverberg, the chief of anesthesia at Southampton Hospital. Silverberg moved to the East End 12 years ago, finding a home with the Community Bible Church after being drawn to the congregation not just by their dedication to God, but also their coffee house, where Silverberg, a musician, could be found playing his drums.
“But really what we are about is we just want to glorify God in everything we do,” he said.
In May, RaphaEl Ministries took its inaugural medical mission to Kitwe, Zambia with 17 local doctors and nurses making the trip on their own vacation time to provide medical care and supplies to an area where even the most basic supplies can be scarce. Southampton Hospital donated numerous supplies, which the mission brought over — obstetric equipment including a sonogram machine and incubator that the hospital was no longer in need of after upgrading their facilities.
What brought RaphaEl Ministries to Kitwe Hospital, and ultimately to Merris, was Zambian reverend Lubuto Nsofu, who Dr. Silverberg met at the Church of the Sound while he was in his residency in Stony Brook. Reverend Nsofu was training at Christ for The Nations College, which used to be at Stony Brook, when the two connected, forging a bond that continues to this day — a bond that made Dr. Silverberg decide Zambia should be the site of RaphaEl Ministries’ first medical ministry.
“I had moved out here and had him come to some of our churches,” recalled Dr. Silverberg. “That was when we connected. And I said to my friend, James Brady, let’s go on a medical mission together.”
For Dr. Silverberg, using his training in mission work is a part of a life long desire – a desire only temporarily put on hold while he paid off his school debts.
“Being a Christian, the desire has always been in my heart,” he said. “I think God put it in me, to help those less fortunate. These things, God arranges them, and it developed over time where I was finally able to go.”
During the trip Dr. Silverberg, along with Dr. Brady, Southampton Hospital attending obstetrician Florence Rolston, and a number of others provided both free surgeries and medical care at Kitwe Hospital, as well as service to clinics in the African bush.
The surgical team completed approximately 40 procedures and the medical team cared for between 300 and 500 patients over the course of three days, in what Dr. Silverberg described as a morning to night schedule. Conditions in Zambia were far from what one would expect to find in a hospital stateside, with exposed wiring in some operating rooms, and no screens lending to surgical areas compromised by flies and mosquitoes.
And it was at Kitwe that Dr. Silverberg met Merris.
Immediately, he said, they knew caring for Merris in Zambia was not possible due to the extent of her injury. It was Dr. Brady who Dr. Silverberg said made the decision that Merris’s care could not happen in Kitwe.Â
“She needs extensive surgery,” said Dr. Silverberg, adding almost immediately the group began to strategize on how, and when, they could bring Merris to the United States for her operation.
In addition to extensive surgery, Merris will need a full week of recovery at Southampton Hospital, followed by two months of rehabilitation on the East End.
“So we said to ourselves, there is a way, and we started developing our plan, discussing it with the hospital, which has been very supportive of our ministry,” said Dr. Silverberg.
Merris, once issues have been settled with the Zambian passport agency, will travel to the United States with her mother, as well as a Zambian nurse who speaks English and will be given western medical training at Southampton Hospital during their stay.
RaphaEl Ministries has already expended some $7,000 just flying Merris, her mother and the nurse to the United States, and will also be responsible for helping provide clothing, supplies and transportation for the family during their stay.
All the doctors involved in the case have agreed to donate their time, said Dr. Silverberg, adding the hospital itself has been a great help.
In order to support RaphaEl Ministries work — Merris’s surgery, as well as the planned surgery of a 20-year old man from Zambia who suffered severe burns to his head, neck and upper body in February, and a second medical mission to Kitwe Hospital in April — the organization will begin fundraising in the community shortly, according to Paula Krzyzewski, a member of the Community Bible Church and RaphaEl Ministries.
Before the last venture to Africa, Dr. Rolston and another nurse affiliated with St. Johns Episcopal Church in Southampton, along with Cindy Willis spearheaded a fundraising movement for the mission.
“I can do medicine, I can’t do fundraising,” acknowledged Dr. Silverberg.
Overall $50,000 was raised, enough to cover team expenses on the last mission and send over a container of donated equipment from the hospital, as well as baby blankets, children’s books and clothing to Kitwe, which will be distributed by Victory Ministries and Victory Bible Church. According to Krzyzewski, the container should be arriving in the next two weeks.
Â “It’s completely outside my realm to sit around this table of doctors and nurses,” said Krzyzewski. “What they are doing is so inspiring and so selfless.”