A Wisconsin husband-and-wife medical team learn that a heart for service begins and ends with a heart for God.
The sobbing woman nestled her head next to the feet of the child, lying lifeless in the pediatric ward bed. Her 4-year-old son had succumbed to malaria, the leading cause of death in young children in Malawi.
So many children had been sickened by it, and during the past week Ellen Hanson, a World Medical Mission volunteer, had administered intravenous fluids to several of them at Nkhoma Hospital. A mother herself, seeing the distressed woman broke her heart.
“There were other mothers in the ward at the time, but no one was going over to this poor woman to console her,” said Hanson. “I put my arm around her and held her for 10 or 15 minutes while she cried. I couldn’t speak her language, but words were not needed. Just being present was enough.”
While Hanson couldn’t help the deceased child, she could try to bring comfort to the mother. After all, that was the primary reason why she and her husband, Iyad Saleh, came to Malawi in January—to be the arms and feet of Jesus Christ.
Bush hospitals. Cholera and Ebola outbreaks. Earthquakes. Refugee camps. A war zone. There’s no situation, no place on earth, where Hanson, an emergency room and operating room nurse, and Iyad Saleh, an anesthesiologist assistant, haven’t gone when God has called them to alleviate human suffering.
That unquenchable passion for service has inspired them as a couple and individually to go on more than 60 mission and humanitarian-focused trips during the past 25 years. It’s also the driving force which brought them together—and led to their wedding ceremony in a Samaritan’s Purse field hospital in Ecuador in 2016.
A Desire to Serve
Hanson grew up in a Christian home and gave her heart to Jesus as a child. She recalls seeing pictures of starving children in Ethiopia in her father’s National Geographic magazine when she was eight years old. Those images of emaciated bodies deeply troubled her. Hanson knew then that she wanted to become a nurse.
Her first work with Samaritan’s Purse came in 2011, when she attended to cholera patients in our treatment unit in Haiti. She also helped care for Ebola-stricken patients at our facility in Liberia for three weeks in 2014.
Saleh grew up in Syria and came to the United States at age 16 with plans to become a doctor. He received his college degree, working side jobs to help pay his way, and was accepted into medical school. A glitch with his visa, however, meant he would have to delay his medical studies for a year.
“I found out about an anesthesiology assistant program that I could enroll in immediately at Emory University in Atlanta, so I did that instead. I really liked it and decided to stay in the program,” he said.
Meanwhile, Saleh began attending churches and sought to understand the basic beliefs of Christianity. It was a gradual process, but in the midst of his search for answers, he found Jesus.
He also became involved in mission work, including more than 20 trips to Haiti to participate in construction and water projects, followed by medical trips to countries in Central and South America.
Ironically, Saleh and Hanson had been employed at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in Wisconsin for many years, but they worked in different departments and did not know each other.
“I’ve been at the hospital for 35 years, and Iyad for 20 years,” Hanson explained. “We met on a medical trip to Ethiopia in 2014 that was hosted by our hospital through a partnership with Project Mercy.”
The next year the hospital sponsored another trip, and the two, both divorced and devoted to serving Jesus, began to develop a friendship.
Operating Room Nuptials
In April 2016, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Ecuador destroyed area hospitals and left many people needing surgery for broken bones as well as routine medical care. Hanson and Saleh signed up to serve with Samaritan’s Purse in what was our first Emergency Field Hospital deployment.
The two were among the first team members to arrive, so they rolled up their sleeves and joined in the task of setting up the tents. In addition to his anesthesia duties, Saleh helped run the generator and operate the sterilizer machine.
“That’s one of the things I love about mission work,” he said. “You work out of your comfort zone. I thrive in those kinds of situations.”
Something else out of the ordinary took place during their month in Ecuador. The couple had been dating for some time and were contemplating marriage.
“We decided to commit to a life of serving Jesus.”
“We decided to commit to a life of serving Jesus and each other at the field hospital in a disaster setting,” said Hanson.
“Yes, what better place to get married, while we were among God’s people,” Saleh added. “We had the ceremony inside the operating room tent right after staff devotions. Then we began the day’s work.”
Some of the 50 or 60 staff members in attendance played key roles during the event. One of the logistics team members, who was also an ordained pastor, officiated the ceremony.
A field hospital worker who does wedding photography had brought her camera with her, so the couple had wedding photos taken. And as a way of saying thanks for the care their loved one had received, a patient’s family brought a cake to the tent the next day. So the newlyweds had a wedding cake too!
Their five weeks at the Emergency Field Hospital in Mosul, Iraq, in 2017 was a memorable experience for very different reasons, however.
Security was tight, but the sound of bomb explosions nearby rattled nerves. “There was such a presence of evil permeating the ground and the air around us. Every day our team prayed for God’s protection,” Hanson said.
Having lived through years of war in Syria, seeing children come to the operating area with shrapnel injuries brought back haunting images from Saleh’s youth.
“When I was 7 or 8 years old, I was playing outside with my best friend when we saw what looked like a teddy bear on the street. We both ran to get it, but my friend ran faster than me,” remembers Saleh. “He picked up the toy. It exploded and he was killed.”
Saleh was deeply moved during visits with young patients in the field hospital’s post-surgery recovery area. When children heard him speak in their native tongue of Arabic, they all had the same desperate plea.
“‘Help me find my mother, my father.’ Many of them were crying. It was terrible,” he said.
Growing with God
Perhaps it was the horrors of seeing so many civilian casualties, or the daily spiritual battles that seared their consciences. When Saleh and Hanson returned to Wisconsin, they felt convicted.
“Anything can become an idol to you, even serving,” Hanson reflected. “And God was showing us that serving had become an idol. We realized that what we were doing had become more about who we were when we were serving and the people we were serving with, than about our relationship with God.”
They spent the next year wrestling with a series of painful circumstances. Hanson said God used those challenges to break their pride, readjust their attitudes, and reassign their priorities so that they committed to place Him first in their lives.
Afterwards they resumed their missionary trips with greater purpose and zeal. “When God calls you, you can’t say no. Jesus didn’t come to earth to be served, but to serve. That’s the ultimate thing all of us as His followers are supposed to do,” said Saleh. “There’s nothing more fulfilling in life than to make a difference in someone else’s life.”
Thanks to flexible schedules and gracious supervisors, the couple now does at least two short-term trips a year with World Medical Mission, in addition to trips with other organizations. Those travels include trips in 2021 to Galmi Hospital in Niger and Nkhoma Mission Hospital in Malawi.
“When God calls you, you can’t say no.”
Cesarean sections and trauma cases were among the procedures they participated in at Nkhoma, as most elective surgeries had been postponed due to COVID-19 concerns. One of their memorable patients was a boy around the age of 11 who was bitten on the leg by a crocodile while swimming in a river.
With limited resources, mission hospitals typically can’t administer epidural drugs or strong pain medications because they simply are not available. Part of Saleh’s role at the hospitals is to teach staff how to apply nerve blocks and perform advanced techniques of anesthesia delivery.
Saleh gave the boy a block so they could clean the three-day-old leg wound, which had become infected. Hanson kept talking with the child to reassure him. Although the boy was nervous, he remained calm throughout the entire process.
For Hanson, one of the highlights in Malawi was the experience of going with a hospital team to outlying villages for two days of health clinics. The high rate of deaths among children with malaria in the pediatric ward had saddened and frustrated her. She was thrilled to help give antimalaria vaccinations to dozens of babies and children.
Hanson acknowledges some drawbacks to their short-term work. Language barriers make it difficult to have meaningful spiritual conversations with patients, and brief time spent in hospitals limits their opportunity to form close relationships with staff.
“I see our role as being encouragers to the local staff,” explained Hanson, “by bringing needed medical supplies, personal comfort items like chocolate and DVD movies to long-term missionaries, and giving national staff a month of vacation while we cover their shifts.”
Although Saleh and Hanson devoted the bulk of their time to working in the operating room or treating patients in the emergency room or on the wards, the couple made spending time with the Lord an essential part of each day. That’s an intentional change from the early years when they felt an overflowing schedule would please God more than communing with Him.
“We’ve definitely learned the importance of focusing on our relationship with Jesus first and foremost. You have to maintain that relationship first, and everything else flows from there. Ultimately that is more important than even the people who you are serving,” said Hanson.
“This is what God has called us to do, but what I want to convey is that everyone can have a ministry, whether you are holding someone’s hand in a nursing home or crocheting a hat for the homeless,” she concluded. “God can use you where you are. It’s all about having a heart for Him.”
There is a critical need for Christian medical volunteers who can serve on short-term trips at our partner mission hospitals. For more information and to apply, visit samaritanspurse.ca/wmm.