Racial Justice Resources

Learning to Accept Accompaniment

A Letter from Martha Sommers, serving in Malawi

July 2018

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Dear friends,

This morning, I went to MacNeal Hospital, west of Chicago, for my pre-op EKG in preparation for my surgery on July 18. I will be having a left breast mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. I am told to expect the surgery to take six hours, to be in the hospital for three days, and to still have three drains when I am discharged home. Certainly dreadful when I think about it, yet I am also very much wishing for the date of surgery to come so that I can begin the work of healing. The technician who performed my EKG shared that she is a breast cancer survivor, and that she will pray for me and my treatments.

Two months ago, I traveled from my home in Nkhoma, Malawi, to South Africa for my routine follow-up diagnostic mammogram, and a new lesion was found. I have been on an emotionally rocky road ever since. This lesion wound up being a recurrence of my breast cancer. It was hard to restart my cancer journey as a stranger in a town where I had no friends, yet I am thankful that God provided new friends who took seriously Romans 15:7, “Welcome one another like Christ has welcomed you.”

I am also thankful for old friends. The weekend between finding out about my new mammography lesion and having the breast biopsy that confirmed I again have cancer, my dear old friend Judith Banda traveled with her daughter and toddler grandson the two hours each way on local buses from Voloorous (South Africa) to the guesthouse in which I was staying in Melville to spend Saturday with me. When I began working as a doctor at the Synod of Livingstonia’s Embangweni Hospital in northern Malawi in 1997, Judith was the head nurse. I had last seen Judith and her children 10 years back, when I had the chance to visit their home. This time, however, they were insistent that I was the patient, and they should come to me.

Chatting in the lounge of Melville Turret.

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The manager and staff at the Melville Turret guesthouse creatively kept my spirits up. The morning they found out my friends would be traveling to see me, Amerille Vermooten-Voster, the manager, told me to be sure to use the sitting room. While waiting, I was anxiously texting back and forth with Mary Buhle Shongwe, Judith’s daughter. By the time they arrived, I was standing out front looking in their direction. Squinting, I made out Judith hobbling, and her daughter, Mary, slightly bent forward, with her son, Jayden, on her back. We ran as best we could toward each other, me also hobbling a bit due to a flare-up of tendinitis in my left foot. Hugs, tears and laughter followed. Judith and I laughed at how we have aged over the years, now both having matching flared-up foot tendinitis. At first, Jayden was a little suspicious of me, but then he warmed up enough to give waves and receive cookies. By the time we strolled back into the guesthouse, the staff had done their best to babyproof the lounge. Patricia, the breakfast chef, insisted on helping me prepare their afternoon tea. Our visit ended with praying for each other, more hugs, and me escorting them back toward the bus station. When I returned to the guesthouse, I was again served tea, and was told to sit and chat a bit, which I did. I am learning to receive accompaniment on this difficult road.

Ten days later, carrying the slides from my biopsy and CD’s of my mammography films, I was able to fly back to Malawi. I was met at the airport and driven to Nkhoma, where my community was prepared to continue to accompany me. We shared visits and meals together, and the entire staff at the hospital chapel prayed for me as I did my best to pack up, help clinically at the hospital, and hand over my responsibilities so that I could return to Chicago for treatment. There were lots of tears — mine, and even more so, my friends’.

Malawi is one of the many countries where early detection and high tech treatment for breast cancer are not available. Although some of the Nkhoma community know of one local nurse whose breast cancer was treated successfully in South Africa, many do not know any breast cancer survivors. Therefore, some of my friends thought I was still in the denial stage of grief when I told them I would go home for treatment. I shared that it would involve some difficult months, but then I would be well enough to return to work with them.

So many of our brothers and sisters die from treatable diseases. I am thankful for the privilege to work with my colleagues at Nkhoma hospital to do what we can to prevent many of these deaths.

I am able to work in Malawi at Nkhoma and have medical insurance that gives me access to the healthcare that is saving my life because so many of you donate to my Lecturer and Practitioner of Family Medicine position with PC(USA)’s Presbyterian World Mission, which includes health insurance. Thank you. Please continue your support. And for any of you who are not yet donating to my position, please prayerfully consider doing so.

I look forward to healing and returning to my ministry in Malawi, knowing the road won’t be easy. Yet, confident in my medical team, surrounded by family and friends, and with your ongoing prayers and support, I do believe I will again travel from patient to survivor.

Thank you for accompanying me.


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