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Reflecting on the Rich Heritage of a Missionary Jungle Hospital in Ecuador [News]

January 10, 2014

(Jan. 10, 2014 - by Roger Reimer) On Dec. 31, 2013, HCJB Global's Hospital Vozandes del Oriente (HVO or Hospital Vozandes-Shell) closed its doors after more than 55 years of service. Roger Reimer, who served as the mission's healthcare director for 16 years, reflects on the hospital's impact throughout its history.

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Dedication of Epp Memorial Hospital in Shell, Ecuador, in 1958.
Appreciating the Beginning

In the early 1950s an encounter took place between two guests at HCJB Global's guesthouse in Quito. Dr. Ev Fuller, a newly arrived missionary doctor, was engaged in a lively conversation with the other guest who lived in Shell, a jungle town at the edge of the Amazon rainforest.

The other gentlemen challenged Dr. Fuller to come to Shell to start a medical work. His name was Nate Saint, the Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) pilot who was one of five missionaries martyred in 1956 as they sought to evangelize the Waorani Indians in Ecuador's Amazon region.

That brief meeting of the two guests was one of the early memories that Dr. Fuller shared with me 50 years later as we sat having coffee together at the mission's new Quito guesthouse where my wife, Lois, and I served as hosts from 1997 to 1998 and 2002 to 2007.

Countless stories could be told by staff members, coming from more than 10 countries on five continents, who had served at the hospital throughout the years. The reality of seeing God's hand at work on a regular basis can be appreciated in these comments from Lois Price, one of the longtime missionary nurses who worked at HVO.

"I have seen God provide staff and personnel when the situation seemed hopeless," she related. "God used my experiences at HVO to show me what I was capable of doing in my own strength (which horrified me) and how much I needed Him. I saw God healing people that we as a staff were unable to help: not only physically but spiritually, too."

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Comforting a patient at Hospital Vozandes-Shell.
Frequently when I took visitors to Shell, I was asked, "What are some of the unique health issues that are addressed in this jungle hospital?"

In response I would say, "snakebites, machete wounds and difficult pregnancies." Poisonous snakes continue to be a constant threat, and machetes are the main tool for the local agronomy. Most of the babies born in the jungle are delivered at home, so we would only see the difficult cases when women in crisis were rushed to the hospital. Tuberculosis also continues to be a threat in the country. HVO had one of the few labs in Ecuador that could accurately diagnose TB.

You can't think about the Shell hospital without remembering the treacherous road between Baños and Shell. For decades this was a narrow, 1½-lane dirt road carved into the side of mountains with a threatening, unguarded drop-off several hundred feet below. During the 16 years that I served as healthcare director, I traveled this road at least once a month to attend staff meetings and deliver medical supplies.

On one occasion I made an effort to take some medical items to Shell during a transportation strike. Bad decision. I left Quito with two other travelers and proceeded to navigate through the obstacles of fallen trees and burning tires, avoiding crowds of angry strikers only to finally return to Quito the following morning after six flat tires and never having arrived in Shell!

I didn't allow any mission guests to take public buses to Shell because all too frequently we heard reports of buses loaded with passengers going over the edge of the road.

An International Project

When the original hospital opened on May 10, 1958, it was called Epp Memorial Hospital in recognition of the involvement by Dr. Theodore Epp, founder of Back to the Bible, a ministry based in Lincoln, Neb. The local people always identified the hospital as a ministry of the Voice of the Andes and so Hospital Vozandes was used.

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A cake shows the H-shaped design of HVO. The cake was served at a special event in December before the hospital closed.
Early in the 1980s the staff began the process of planning for and dreaming of a new hospital. The original wood-constructed building was termite-ridden, and at places only paint was visible behind an empty shell where there was once wood. After repeated pleas for consideration led by Dr. Wally Swanson, a missionary physician, HCJB Global's board of trustees approved the project.

Ken Edgar, a professional engineer with construction experience, was sent by Missionary TECH Team to manage the project. Building a new concrete-block structure on the foundation of the porous, rain-soaked ground required special footings and an extensive water drainage network.

"God overcame obstacles time after time during the construction of the hospital," he explained. "The hospital staff had a floor plan in mind of a concentrated network of rooms so that two night nurses could attend to all of the patients, but the Swedish funding agency which was responsible for the hospital design was opposed to that layout because it didn't provide enough fresh air and light. Neither side would budge. An architectural consultant came from Sweden to see what could be done. He and I shared a room, and we were able to come up with a totally new design in the form of an 'H' that satisfied everyone."

"God also overcame language and training barriers during the construction of the hospital," Ken continued. "I spoke American English, and so did the foreman, Wayne Wiley, and the mason, Ross Sattler. Jim Hiebert got his carpentry training in Canada. Alex Weir was trained in plumbing in New Zealand. Working visitor Geoff Stole was trained in the U.K., and Mike Ward in South Africa. Each one had a different idea of how to proceed and used different terms to explain it. In addition, we were trying to communicate in Spanish with the construction workers. Only God could bring harmony out of the confusion."

Ken also expressed appreciation for the stories shared in the monthly staff meetings about the care of patients and the ministry of the hospital in general.

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A rare set of triplets born at HVO.
Through the cooperation of our friends in the Swedish Language Service at Radio Station HCJB in Quito, we were able to receive substantial financial aid from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). The money came through the Swedish World Office which did the fundraising and financial follow-up for the entire project. With collaborative efforts from the staff onsite, input from the architectural perspective from our Swedish co-workers, and the experience of staff members who had served in other parts of the world, the whole project came together.

I had the privilege of driving the Swedish ambassador to Ecuador to Shell to participate in the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new hospital on March 30, 1985. What a joyous occasion to reflect the immense sense of satisfaction of a dream completed and of God's provision in so many ways!

At the entrance to the surgical area a plaque on the wall expresses appreciation for the years of sacrificial service offered by Beth Huddleston and Eleanor Boyes, two of the hospital's long-term missionary nurses now retired in Canada. These two women were instrumental in procuring medical equipment, organizing, administrating and raising funds. The functional design of the hospital reflected their input. Eleanor's book, Bridge to the Rain Forest, is a must-read in order to capture their hearts and the ministry of this hospital.

HVO closing 01 building lr
An Eternal Investment

Throughout the years one of the sources of pleasure has been to see the result of investment in the lives of our Ecuadorian healthcare colleagues. Time spent sharing in the joys and struggles in the families of these friends has been priceless. Last September, when the mission informed the staff that HVO would be discontinued at the end of the year, an opportunity was given for staff members to express their feelings of appreciation.

"I found these to be incredibly encouraging reactions to their receiving notice of losing their jobs," said Alex, a longtime missionary who recorded people's comments. Alex now leads the mission's continuing community development ministries based in Shell.

"Where else in the world would this happen?" Alex asked. "It gives credence that HVO has a good Christian testimony and that the employees are thankful for the loving work environment and the way staff and patients are shown God's love. These snippets do not do justice to the atmosphere and tears shared, hugs given and forgiveness sought by each person."

"I came to Christ five years ago while working here at hospital. I thank God for the employment I have had here and that I have had the opportunity to grow spiritually."-An employee

"I thank God for being here but as we leave this place of employment I want to encourage each one of us to keep following Christ."-A dietary worker

"I will never forget the friends I have had here. This is a safe, friendly second home to me and it has been good for me as my home situation is not easy."-A nurse

"I want to give thanks to God for the 25-plus years I have worked here. I came to know Christ here and was fed spiritually here. God bless each of you."-A nurse

HVO closing 08 microscope lr
"You are my family. I thank God for you. God has a plan, He knows what is best. For now I will take time to be close to my children and family. I will take time to be close to my God. I have His inner peace about this change in my life."-An administrative staff member

"Thank you for the opportunity to work here. I have been treated differently than at the other places I have worked. I have been treated with love and respect. There is a different atmosphere here at this hospital."-A nursing assistant

"God has plans and a purpose in everything. This is like my second home and thank you that I have been able to share things with you, my colleagues. God has great things ahead. Let's not forget God as we go from here."-A head nurse

"I came to HVO to work, and I came from a broken home. I came to know Christ and grew here spiritually. God has given me faith and hope. Only my God knows what is ahead, and I thank Him."-A lab employee

"God has shown His faithfulness and love to me during the 31 years I have been with HVO. Six years ago I was let go from this employment and then rehired. My marriage had troubles. I have been encouraged to trust in Him through any situation. The Lord says, 'Come unto me all you who are burdened and heavy laden and I will give you rest.' I urge you all to come to Him. Psalm 46 says God is our refuge and strength. God is a personal God and knows each of us personally. I thank Him for helping me through afflictions. I thank Him for His peace and consoling presence. I thank Him that He has everything under control."-A maintenance worker

"God bless each and everyone here. Thank you to the leadership over the years. I thank God for this institution."-A maintenance worker

"This has been a great friendly work atmosphere. God is here. God has been reflected through you and me to all who come into HVO. God has brought us here for a purpose to know Him and to shine for Him now and when we leave for other employment. We can hold our heads up high because we worked at HVO."-A maintenance worker

"As a patient when I needed an operation, I was prayed for by a nurse. I sensed some peace from that and was impressed. Then, as I was taken to the operating room, Dr. Eckehart Wolff prayed for me again and I felt more peace. I asked myself, 'What kind of place is this?' I was later employed and I got to know God here. I thank God for this place and each of you."-An employee

"I give thanks to God that through this difficult situation of being laid off, we can pray, and God is right here with us. We pray with confidence and He hears us and helps us. We also have had confidence in the treatment of people. I brought my mother-in-law here, and my own mother passed away here in this hospital. God has a plan and He is in control. Let's continue to pray and have faith in our God. Don't faint, don't leave God."-The Ecuadorian administrator

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Dr. Ev and Liz Fuller who both passed away within the last four years.
A Memorable Visit

On one of his last visits to Ecuador, Dr. Fuller sat in our guesthouse in Quito and spoke with a brand-new MAF pilot heading to Shell, challenging this young man about the ministry opportunities in the jungle community. This was an inspiring reversal of roles from that first encounter in the guesthouse in Quito of passing the baton of ministry. This visionary always had an energetic, inspiring word for everyone.

I conclude this chapter in the life of this jungle institution with a quote from one of our veteran missionary doctors who served in Shell for more than 20 years. "So many people came to the hospital wounded and broken in their bodies and seeking relief," said Dr. Steve Nelson. "But then, when they left, they found they were not only on the mend physically, but completely and eternally healed in their hearts and spirits. That will last forever!"

Source: HCJB Global




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