May 30, 2015

Free Clinic 'Sends Message to World' After Treating 34,100 in Zimbabwe

, news editor, Adventist Review

An Adventist-organized clinic that provided free healthcare to 34,100 patients in two weeks in Zimbabwe has not only astonished organizers and the country but also promises to shape the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s work going forward.

The mega clinic ended Friday after 550 volunteers provided about $2.5 million in basic health services to long lines of people in a shopping center in Chitungwiza, a city of about 365,000 people located a 30-minute drive south of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.

“The Chitungwiza Health Expo has sent a message to the world that God’s plan to help people be balanced … physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually is a powerful plan,” Adventist Church president Ted N.C. Wilson said late Friday as he thanked the volunteers during an evangelistic meeting in a field directly beside the shopping center.

Peter N. Landless, the Adventist world church’s top health officer and a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, said this was the first time that he had seen a free clinic care for so many people on a sustained, daily basis, and he suggested that it offered a model for the church to replicate elsewhere.

“This has been a most amazing experience because it has shown you don’t have to have extravagant expos but you must have thorough expos,” Landless said in an interview only steps away from the entrance of the shopping center. “That’s what meets the needs of the people right at the grassroots level and particularly here, where there has been a need for screening and basic healthcare. The needs have been met, and people have just rejoiced.”

Innocent Gwizo, the main organizer of the free clinic and director of health ministries for the Zimbabwe Union Conference, said he was having trouble fathoming the enormous impact that the free clinic has had on Zimbabwe.

“I have no doubt that the Lord did this expo,” Gwizo said. “This was not a human program. This was God in action because, as director of the expo, I am surprised by the results, too. Nothing is impossible with God. We need to think outside the box.”

Scores of people waiting for free healthcare in the central square of the shopping center. (Andrew McChesney / AR)

The Adventist Church has sought to care for people’s physical and spiritual needs since its origins in 1863, but its has placed an increasing emphasis on blending the two in a “comprehensive health ministry” during Wilson’s five years in office.

“Comprehensive health ministry has been part of the church since 1863. It is in our DNA,” Landless said earlier this week during a health presentation to 20,000 people attending the nightly evangelistic meetings led by Wilson in Chitungwiza. “But there has been some genetic engineering since 2010,” he said, thanking Wilson for the new emphasis.

The first major free clinic treated about 3,000 people over three days in two California cities last year, and it was followed by a three-day event that provided $20 million in free healthcare to some 6,100 people in San Antonio, Texas, last month.

The core medical team behind the Chitungwiza free clinic has organized a couple small, one-week free clinics in the country’s second-largest city, Bulawayo. But the potential of its work really captured the attention of local church leaders last September when it staged a three-week free clinic in Marange, a remote area in east Zimbabwe with no public health services nearby. While only five doctors, four nurses, and 36 other volunteers participated in the free clinic, it resulted in 220 baptisms and the establishment of 10 new churches in the area.

Similar results could emerge from Chitungwiza’s free clinic, where scores of patients have attended the evangelistic meetings next door. Several are already preparing for baptism, including a former drug user who was forced by his wife to enter an intensive 10-day addictions recovery program.

The wife marched her husband to the addictions recovery booth near the start of the free clinic on May 13 and ordered him to stay there, Gwizo said.

The free clinic operated the addictions recovery program in a building near the free clinic, and people who sought assistance to overcome addictions to cocaine, marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco lived and ate with medical volunteers for 10 days. To enroll, patients were required to surrender their cash and cell phones.

“The man says he is grateful that he is now free from addictions to drugs, beer, and tobacco, and will be baptized and become an Adventist,” Gwizo said.

Twenty-four people finished the program and received certificates during a graduation ceremony attended by Dorcas Sithole, deputy director of the Zimbabwean government’s Mental Health And Dangerous Drugs Services. Four graduates gave speeches thanking the church, and one of them, a college student, asked the church to bring the program to colleges.

Sithole was so impressed with the program that she asked the church to showcase it at a nationally televised event to mark No Tobacco Day on May 31. Zimbabwe’s vice president will attend the event.

“She also requested that some of the graduates come and give their testimonies of what the Adventist Church had done for them,” Gwizo said.

A volunteer preparing a meal for the patients in the diabetes program. (Andrew McChesney / AR)

Many other patients have also expressed gratitude for their treatment, but perhaps among the most thankful are those who left without diabetes. Dr. Masima Mwazha, one of the members of the core medical team behind the free clinic, said he would long remember the joy of seeing people complete a program in which they were fed a diet that reversed their conditions.

Patients aren’t the only people delighted with the free clinic, which leased vacant retail space in a half-deserted shopping center. The shopping center’s other tenants, which include food stores and a pharmacy, have seen their sales soar over the past two weeks, Gwizo said.

The only disappointed tenant was a dentist whose office couldn’t compete with the 30 dentists offering free services, he said. But, he added, the Adventist Church found a way to make peace with him — and leave him beaming. The 30 free dentists referred all their patients to his office for follow-up work. Gwizo estimated that 200 to 300 of the several thousand dental patients would end up paying for his services.

The free clinic was not without its challenges. The biggest issue was the unexpectedly large turnout, which left organizers scrambling at times to find the finances to meet the demand. Even now, after the free clinic has closed, major surgeries are continuing to be performed by volunteer doctors at the Chitungwiza Central Hospital. About $25,000 is still needed to cover surgeries for the last several dozen patients who were signed up to receive treatment, Gwizo said.

This financial complication offers a lesson for future free clinics.

Landless, in speaking about the milestone of treating 34,000 patients in two weeks, said: “It is a first in my experience and it’s something that we can look to emulate down the road, but realizing that we need to count the cost before we try to do the building.”

A booth offering to take males to a nearby government hospital for free circumcisions. (Andrew McChesney / AR)

The Zimbabwe Union Conference intends to hold more free clinics but will take a one-year break before holding another major one as it assesses the lessons learned from the past two weeks.

In the meantime, church members are going to be busy doing follow-up work with the 34,000 patients. Every person who came to the expo will be visited at least three times by church members, and smaller health expos will be conducted in Chitungwiza churches to nurture them, Gwizo said.

In addition, the Adventist Church will make use of its freshly burnished image to strengthen its collaborative relationship with government agencies and nongovernmental organizations, he said. Various organizations and the government have already extended invitations to the church to partner with them on health issues.

But the free clinic is only the beginning, Gwizo said.

“We have not done much considering that Zimbabwe has about 14 million people whom we need to reach with the faith of the Seventh-day Adventist Church through comprehensive health ministry,” he said.

“We should never rest, entertaining the thought that we have done something big,” he said. “Big is only when everyone in our territory knows beyond doubt the holistic message proclaimed by the Adventist Church: Jesus is coming again.”