In early September, 2014, 93-year-old Dr. Lowell Gess bought a plane ticket to Sierra Leone.
The earliest booking he could get was Jan. 3, 2015, but Gess was determined to provide whatever services he could to fight Ebola in a country that had been a second home to him.
In a report he wrote after his return in early March, the retired United Methodist missionary did note that at the time he bought the ticket he thought that perhaps three months would give him pause to think about going into the lion’s den. If it did give him pause, it didn’t stop him.
“My calling has been in medical missions. I love God and my neighbor. I serve in the name of Jesus Christ who said in Matthew 25:40 ‘Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, you have done it unto Me,’ ” Gess reflected.
“The people of West Africa thought they were being abandoned; they were being shunned by the world. And so I wanted to come and show that I am a part of the fellowship of the church and of Kissy Eye Hospital and by being present I thought it was important to actually be here and be of help,” he said.
A 58-year residency
Gess loves Sierra Leone where he spent 58 years of his missionary journey.
“I had made up my mind in the first week of September. But I couldn’t get here. I didn’t tell anybody that I was coming. Finally, after several weeks, I told my children. Somebody let it out. It spread like wildfire. It even got to the radio and TV. They sent out camera crews and said ‘We understand you are going to Africa where there is Ebola. Why?’ Anyway I explained to them that I felt called to keep on with the work. So it was a Christian testimony. And that went out to all the states in America,” Gess explained.
Gess took along with him medicines much needed at the time — drugs worth more than $60,000 — which he shared among three hospitals, Connaught Hospital in central Freetown, Lunsar Eye Hospital in the north and United Methodist Lowell and Ruth Gess Eye Hospital in Kissy, eastern Freetown, a facility named after Gess and his late wife. Gess fondly calls the facility in eastern Freetown “Kissy Eye.”
Gess arrived at a time in January when there was great fear of the Ebola virus but after two weeks when new infection rates started declining, he said he once again began to feel relaxed.
That decline ended in February after new cases in Freetown occurred as infected people using canoes moved from the coastal districts into Freetown. With new infection rates rising again, the government re-introduced more restrictions on travel on Feb. 27, including curtailing the hours of work for boats.
Before his departure, Gess warned against complacency, which is cited as one of the reasons behind the new infections. He said people should not think Ebola is over “until there is zero in every village. Unless we are careful, it could spring up again.”
Gess refuses to take credit for all the relief he took to Sierra Leone, instead attributing it to the people in America who gave generously.
“I am just a channel because many people opened their hearts and their pocketbooks to help Sierra Leone because of the plague of Ebola,” he said.
Helping out at the hospital
Another reason Gess returned to Sierra Leone was to help at the United Methodist health facilities at Kissy, including the Lowell and Ruth Gess Eye Hospital.
Besides teaching, Gess was busy fixing equipment in the hospital that was unused because of minor problems. He supervised the construction of a bridge within the hospital and the construction of a new surgery area for the eye hospital, replacing an old one that he called dangerous because of poor construction.
“In addition to that, this compound needed a doctor especially when Dr. (Martin) Salia had died. My presence was a help. To have an MD, a bonafide doctor around at the time, was needed. In fact, the Kissy Eye Hospital is the first health center in all of Sierra Leone that is doing surgery now,” Gess said.
In the week before his return to the U.S., Gess sounded satisfied that the eye hospital was now up and running.
“They did over 20 operations yesterday, and some of those patients had to be lead in because they were blind. But tomorrow, they will go home with nobody leading them,” he said.
One thing Gess regrets, though, is that he did not touch anyone on this trip to Sierra Leone. During his last devotion with staff of the United Methodist Sierra Leone Conference on Feb. 25, he said touching constitutes a significant element in the Christian ministry, citing biblical references from the woman who touched Jesus’ garment and was made whole and other people who received healing from Jesus’ touch.
“Over 58 years I’ve been in Africa, I have had the privilege of touching people. A statistician estimated that I have touched over 350,000 people in Sierra Leone. This time in the two months I’ve been here, I’ve touched no one. We pray that today, the spirit of God will touch us,” he said.
As a final note in his reflection on the trip, Gess wrote:
“I have never lived for two months on such a high level of adrenaline.
“I settled into the plane seat and wended my way back to my primary home in Alexandria (Minnesota) …crossing the ocean for the 186th time.
“It was a spiritual experience. I have never been more dependent on God’s grace or experienced more highly the joy of ministering in the name of my Savior and Lord.
“Why did I do it? Like Paul in I Corinthians 9:23 ‘I do all for the Gospel’s sake’ or as the popular Good News Bible used in Africa ‘All this I do for the Gospel’s sake in order to share in its blessings.’ ”