Day Three.

When I first arrived in Liberia, I was thrilled to see our team’s diversity. After a number of conversations with everyone, I realized that we’re all from such different places serving for such varying reasons. I thought it’d be interesting for everyone to meet the people I’m working with and hear their motivations. This morning, I talked with Dr. Bambuta Bole Taty of Congo. Everyone calls him Taty (tah-TEE) because as he explained, last names come first there. He’s been practicing for three years, is a newlywed and has worked in Liberia once before, as a surgeon. He’s a quiet man, but breaks into a broad, almost mischievous smile while discussing his wife. When English or third-world healthcare comes up, he leaps into conversation unfettered by his imperfect English. I admire him.

Note: Although his English is a little stilted, I think it would do a disservice to him to completely edit our talk. How he speaks is part of who he is, so I hope that is communicated well. Thanks for reading.

Me: So, what is it that motivated you to come to Liberia?

Taty: The first thing I can say: when I went in India I was asking about my post-graduate program, so they told me that I have to go first and practice for two years. Then I can go back and study. So that’s what I decided to practice; where they can speak English.

What kind of work?

Well now, I already change things! I wanted to do the pediatric surgery, but now I already change! I’m going to do the MPH (note: master’s in public health). You know most of times, most of our opportunity in the NGO (note: non-government organizations, synonymous with non-profit organizations) ask you if you have an MPH degree, and I say ‘no’. That’s why I want to get it. So I can work in an NGO.

What did your family and friends think when you told them about coming to Liberia?

Yeah, the first thing they say, “You know you heard about Liberia, what is happening there? Why did you choose to go back there?” So they cry and are very afraid. Especially my wife. Two days before to leave I think, she was crying. She was crying so I was there advising to her. I was saying “I will be there and be safe! Nothing will happen to me!” to convince her to agree for me to come in Liberia. So it was not easy, but at least she agreed!

What are three things that you brought to Liberia, that you can’t do without?

The first thing, it was my books. My study books from the tropical medicines and gynecology. For gynecology, I have books from U.S. States. The second things was my phone – my iPod – because inside I have my wife’s pictures! Haha! The last thing I like… I need to think about it.

What accomplishment are you most proud of ?

The first thing I did was when I gave the surgery experience. For me it was a big thing, yeah.

What kind?

Oh, hysterectomy. C-section. The first surgery I did was the hernia repair. The second was the appendectomy then I did the C-section. Then I did the hysterectomy so that was the big thing.  I work in a Liberia clinic in the past, then I receive from them a call yesterday. She was too glad I was coming back to the clinic. She say, “we are happy you are here!”. They think I am coming to the clinic!

democratic republic of congo

democratic republic of congo

You did your surgeries in Liberia? So you were the boss doctor?

Yes, in the clinic I’m the boss! The second thing achievement was getting married. It was good thing for me.  My wife’s name is Monica.

Tell me about a time that you were really scared.

Let me think about it. No, no the first surgery I did I was very scared. I could not sleep. I was asking how the patient was coming, all that. The second – I’m gonna explain you something – when I was asking my wife’s hand to get married, I was very, very scared because I was thinking she not love me! Haha!

That’s right! You were just married.

Let me tell you about a story. The first time I meet her was in the church. I was sitting somewhere, so the place I was sitting – when you take a look at the door – everyone was coming in. At that time, the Spirit told me to take a look to the door, the time she was coming in. So the first time, I saw her. Later on, I was a medical doctor and all the church know me, haha! She fell sick and they ask her to see me. When she came I said “Oh, thank you God!” because I was willing to, speak to that girl, but could not get the occasion. So this is the best moment for me! So she came and was suffering from Malaria. After that, I asked her if she was already engaged. She say “no”, at that time she was planning to go to South Africa for school – the college program. I say “No! I want you to be my wife if you can agree – if you are ready – so we can get married.” She told me that at that time, she was not ready because she was already plan to go to South Africa to college. But she told me she was feeling nothing for me! So she will be thinking about it later. I say “no problem”.

How long is later?

It was about 2010.

4 years ago?!

Yes, 4 years! Let me explain you. At that time it was 2010 – the first time I asked her. So she said she would think about it later. After three months, she travel to South Africa. When she was in South Africa, I could no get in touch with her because there was no contact.

How long was that?

Six months later on, I went to see her family for just a common visit. We are the same church. I went to visit her family and so during the visit the big sister asked me if I have Monica news. I say ‘no’ because I have no contact. She say, “I will give you her number!” Haha! So I was happy to receive Monica’s number. I started calling her every day, every day to start to remind her about my concern. So she took almost one year.

After you asked?

Yes. After one year, she agrees. She agree for me to become her best friend! And if I could wait for her, I say, “Yes, I’m going to wait for you!”

Dr. Taty and John preparing lunch for the crew.

Dr. Taty and John preparing lunch for the crew.

Then you waited for three years?

When I was plan to go to Liberia (the first visit), we going to see how we’re going to go. I said, “no problem”. So from that time, she became my best friend! In April, my family asks my wife to receive the first visit because you know in Africa, we have different steps for marriage. You have to go first to visit the family and they will give you the cost.

Is that called a dowry?

The cost of the dowry, yes. When you receive the cost, you will go to get the pay.


Money and some other materialistics. Like you know, one bag of sugar, one bag of salt. I give one shirt to the father: tie, shoes, the belt! For the mother I give one clothing. Shoes for the mother, shawl. And a big TV!

A big TV?! Ha!

It was thirty-two inch!

(laughter break)

And you hadn’t seen her in one year?

Not one year! A long time. So we came back so everything was already set. I was happy. And then we program our wedding, which happened August first. Why August first? Because it is a off-day in our country. That’s why we choose that.

So, how do you think you will be different after coming back from this trip?

Wait! I wanted to add something to the things I brought!

You had a third one?

The last thing I can’t forget is my bible. Always, I bring it, Always there. Ok, ready!

Alright, so how do you think you’ll change?

First of all, for me, I’m here to add one experience. Especially, how to help the Ebola patient. I think for me, I just asking God to give us one or two patients, so I can know really they can be take care of. So after this trip, I’m thinking that once I’m back there, I can taught to those that was thinking, “Am I going to be affect by Ebola?” So I will be maybe the one who can be informing people that Ebola is not what we are thinking.

Is there a lot of fear about Ebola in Congo?

Yes, so for me it’s to add something. Especially how to take care of patients, I think.

Do you know what a zombie apocalypse is?

Zambia? Yes.

No, not the country. Zom-bie. Have you ever heard of that?

No, not that?

It’s popular in the United States. It means when you have someone die and come back to life. They try to eat people and all of a sudden you have to fight them.

No, I understand! The movie, I know. The movie the zombies which can take blood from somebody.

And if they bite you, you become one. Is that popular in Congo?

Yes. Most of the youth, they like it. For me, I can’t believe it. Just fantasy, to make people amused.

I won’t ask what you’d do during a zombie apocalypse then. What kind of music do you listen to?

I like the gospel music. Like Don Moen? He say, “God will make a way” – the best song – where it seem to be not way. Myself I like that, for me. That is the passage of our soul with our belief. That anytime, God is helping us and when we are catching hard times. He will make a way, like for the Israelites in the desert with the river and the Egyptians behind.

this is how Dr. Taty looks when he’s on the phone with his wife.

If you could tell something to people who don’t understand Liberia or Ebola, what would you say?

Ok. First of all, those who don’t like to help, we must tell them about especially the protection. The more you are protected, the more safe. If you are one-hundred percent protected, there is one-hundred percent no chance to get Ebola. For those who are scared to come to the place where Ebola is experience, I can tell them that they are just wrong themselves. Ebola is a world problem. If we do not take care of Ebola in the origin, it could come to our country. So for me, I feel I am protecting my country, first. Second, I protect the world.




Day One.

I slept surprisingly well last night – probably because I forgot what I was doing today. A text at 6:30am – “Oh my gosh, our flight leaves in 6 hours!!” – awakened both my body and heart to the realization that spring of 2015 would be the next time I’d sleep in my own bed – or continent. After breakfast, three of my favorite people dropped me off at the airport and I waved goodbye to my city. Quick observation: MCI is one of the nation’s best airports. Sure, we don’t have world-class eateries or shoe-shining machines, but I breezed through check-in and security so fast, I almost went back through with a gel-like substance just to pass the time. Plus, no matter your departure or arrival city, there’s always Skymall waiting at the finish line with open arms and a voice-activated litter box.

if your goals are to remain well-hydrated and urinate every four minutes, I strongly recommend Camelbak as an in-flight companion

if your goals are to remain well-hydrated and urinate every four minutes, I strongly recommend Camelbak as an in-flight companion

Accompanying me from Kansas City are Brian and Tracy. Tracy is a rehab nurse from the area (whom you may recognize if you read our Pulitzer prize-winning article. I was trying to look cool. Did I look cool?) and Brian is our logistics guy from Heart to Heart. One of his primary functions is to coordinate all of our personal protective equipment (PPE) for the clinic, so in retrospect I probably should have bought him a coffee. Travelling to Brussels by way of Washington D.C. with a final destination of Monrovia is the plan for the next 48 or so hours. From Monrovia, we’ll drive between 4-6 hours with a final destination of Tapitta, Liberia. From what I’ve learned, it appears that multiple nonprofits are collaborating and setting up camp in different regions of Liberia. HHI will be based primarily in Tapitta – both in constructing a new clinic and assisting current city efforts. I’ve really been impressed with the coordination that seems to go on between all these organizations to minimize the people that slip through the cracks.

i forgot to be a british pop sensation

i forgot to be a british pop sensation

At lunch I was happy to learn some further details about the mission. The Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU) is under construction and scheduled to be completed in about a week. It’ll primarily consist of gravel and cement foundation, with wood-framed individual tent structures housing patients. Sadly, no update on whether we’ll have the internets, or any type of address to send care packages to. However, I’m sure if you just write “Zach/Liberia” on the package, it’ll make its way to me eventually.

As I sit here and type – 30,000 miles above the black Atlantic and unable to do anything except ponder how Kevin Hart has monopolized the in-flight movie industry – I’m doing a lot of “realizing” for lack of a better word. Realizing that I’m past the point of no return. Realizing that although my seat neighbor ordered chicken and I ordered ravioli, upon further inspection they appear to be fashioned from the same substance. But perhaps most of all, I’m realizing that it’s not really just me going on this journey.

the team lounging in Brussels at 3am

the team lounging in Brussels at 3am (everyone dresses so nicely here)

Ever since I first decided to take the plunge with Heart to Heart, the amount of support I’ve gotten has been nothing short of remarkable. I definitely expected it from my family and close friends, but it’s gone far beyond that. I’ve received innumerable texts, Facebook messages, notes, phone calls and emails from co-workers, friends of friends, parents of friends of friends; people that really have no reason to be supportive or interested, yet are. And in receiving this avalanche of love, I have to say that my heart is at rest.

I think the thing I feared more than anything else wasn’t catching a deadly virus, being trapped in Africa, or even death. My biggest fear is pulling the curtain back on what life is about, and finding something void and hopeless. That suffering is permanent, that it’s just about dodging sad things and that most people just don’t care about anything but themselves. I haven’t seen Ebola firsthand yet and I’m still a little scared of what I’ll find. But all of you who have reached out to me and expressed concern and support – for people you’ll never know and a country you’ll probably never visit – you’ve made me a little less afraid.

just the essentials

just the essentials

Know that I thrive on the community of people I love. Whether we worked in the ED, grew up in the same home or are just the most casual of acquaintances, I’m a product of your investment in me. And as I’ve learned so much through all of you – how to be kind to a co-worker, how to fight for a marriage, how to pursue a dream – I hope that somehow you can also learn a little from a male nurse who ran off to Africa.



When I tell people I’m headed to Liberia for work with Ebola patients, more often than not the first thing they blurt out is, “why”?  And that is a really great question. One I’m still figuring out the answer to.

I remember the moment when I first realized the world was a very large place; when the doors to the tiny room of my mid-western mindset ripped off their hinges, so to speak. Come back with me for a moment, to a simpler time. 2005. Freshman year.  The Fray was a new and cool band and Mr. Lucas had just disappointed us all for the third and final time. Introduction to Intercultural Studies class. Rocking back in my chair, probably thinking about what color of Etnies to buy next, my professor looked out over his thick-rimmed glasses and set wheels in motion that haven’t stopped since:

“If you are sitting in this class right now receiving a college education, you are part of less-than one percent of the world’s most privileged population .”

Surely that couldn’t be right. Less than one percent? I went back to my dormitory and fired up my computer and researched it for myself. Sure enough, he was right. 1%! I thought about it a lot that night, and while it’s crazy enough to realize how gifted I am, another even more insidiously disturbing thought crept in. Not only am I part of the less-than 1% of the world, everyone I know is too. Nearly all of my friends, family members and even the co-workers from my first high-school job as a dinnerware sanitation specialist (dishwasher) were either attending college or heading there soon. We were quite literally all part of the one percent. I immediately got this mental image in my head (caution: nerd alert):

if you don’t know what this is, just pretend like you do.

I exist there. On the very, very pinnacle of the central column. My friends, family, the businesses I drink coffee at, the car I’m driving, the hotels, vacations, Christmases, movie theaters, restaurants, everything I’ve ever experienced – they all do too. My entire life had taken place in the thin atmosphere above the clouds of extreme prestige. I had absolutely no idea what the world was like. If you’ve never thought about that, let it sink in for a moment. The artificial sphere we live in and all the layers inside – upper-income, middle class, blue-collar, rich, poor, homeless – nearly all take place in another much greater sphere in which we are at the top. Like a tiny planet in a gargantuan solar system. It really rocked 18-year old Zach (actually, it was Zac back then) and it still does.

Perhaps even more significant is the spiritual journey I’m on. Being raised in a house that faith was important, I’ve always been curious what the limits are. It’s easy to be a Christian when I get a great rate on my mortgage or when I’m the last one picked for free Chik-Fil-A, but what does it look like when it’s more difficult? Can we go deeper? Many Christians are quick to quote heroes of the faith, or Instagram a well-filtered inspirational verse pic (for the record, I’m against neither and have done both), but how many will actually step push the limits? Matthew 14 tells a story about a guy who jumped out of boat to see if Jesus could save him. Some people might say it was reckless, but it’s always made sense to me a weird way. I could see myself trying that. My friend Bottles introduced me to a quote I’ve pondered frequently:

A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for. -John Shedd

I don’t reach the end of life on a gleaming, unused galleon, or be laid to rest in a spotless skyscraper I’ve never stepped foot out of. Doesn’t that sound awful? It does to me.

So what’s pushing me to Liberia? Not sure entirely, but I guess the question for me now is, what’s keeping me away?

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