The church bulletin posed the same question a lot of people had been asking: “Why in the world would you leave a thriving pediatric surgery practice and a beautiful home, and move your family to a poor, mostly Muslim country in Africa?” Then it suggested the answer: “You’re either crazy or following the call of God.”
But Jacksonville Chapel—Dr. Daniel Kim’s home church since childhood—knew he wasn’t crazy. And that’s why the bulletin went on to announce the congregation’s enthusiastic support for the 44-year-old missionary surgeon.
So why would the family of five leave behind the comfortable life they enjoyed in the States? And why would Dr. Kim spend a total of 18 years in medical, theological, and language training for the move? Because he and his wife Julie, both graduates of Dallas Theological Seminary, sensed a clear call to serve as missionaries, specifically in a locale that was unreached for Christ and medically destitute.
“Why in the world would you leave a thriving pediatric surgery practice and a beautiful home, and move your family to a poor, mostly Muslim country in Africa? You’re either crazy or following the call of God.”
Mali, West Africa—ranked by the U.N. as the world’s sixth poorest country—certainly qualifies. The former French colony has the third highest infant mortality rate, with one in nine dying by the first birthday. For the rest, life expectancy is only 51 years. It’s understandable that Kim’s friends, coworkers, and acquaintances wonder why the New Jersey native voluntarily traded lifestyles: Koutiala Women and Children’s Hospital, with its campus coated in brown dust, is a far cry from Atlanta’s Scottish Rite Hospital where he practiced.
Take the heat, for example. Mali’s warm season, which peaks in May, brings daytime temperatures up to 115° Fahrenheit. In America, hospitals are typically climate-controlled, and operating rooms are windowless, for both privacy and enhanced visibility during scope procedures. But Koutiala’s doorways and windows are open, freely allowing in dust, bugs, and the stifling heat. The OR, too, has a window but also boasts one of the area’s few air-conditioning systems. That lowers the temperature to 90 degrees, which feels cool relative to outside but does nothing to alleviate the dusty smell or swarming horseflies.
Climate, however, is a minor problem. Without a pathology lab or the ability to do cultures of any sort, making a diagnosis requires substantial guesswork. And supplies are so limited that doctors often make do with antibiotics and chemotherapy agents that aren’t well suited for the patient’s condition.
The litany of hindrances goes on. For one thing, many babies need operations, but the OR team has minimal anesthesia experience with children that small. And little ones often need help breathing the first two days after surgery; with no way to resuscitate and ventilate post-op patients, there’s a high frequency of death, even after a successful operation. What’s more, IV fluids are in short supply, and the little that’s available must be mixed in non-sterile conditions.
Of course, physical healing is just one aspect of the challenge and purpose of serving on this mission field. Sharing the good news in a predominantly Muslim country isn’t easy, but medical care is a natural conversation starter, as is the fact that a doctor would forsake an easier life to serve the people of Mali.
Other things are also helpful, such as the In Touch Messenger—a solar-powered audio device containing 65 of Dr. Stanley’s sermons and the New Testament. When Kim arrived in West Africa, he still had 50 French Messengers left over from his months of language study in France. Before long, they were all distributed to eager recipients. After learning that the device could be produced in the area’s native language of Bambara, he requested 10 times as many and now dreams of covering the country with them. “All 500 are gone,” he recently told me on a phone call with a crackling connection. Adding that a girl came to faith that week after listening, he said, “Almost every day somebody asks for more; I could give away 500 in a week. Every pastor is dying for one himself—and [more] to give out.”
“I don’t know if people [back home] understand what’s it’s like with the Messenger, but it’s a total game changer. It’s like gold here.”
While it can be hard to strike up a spiritual conversation with serious Muslims, they will gladly listen to a Messenger. “If I could take a million, I would distribute them all over Mali,” Kim said. “I don’t know if people [back home] understand what’s it’s like with the Messenger, but it’s a total game changer. It’s like gold here.”
Something else that “preaches” is the family’s new home. After researching designs for tropical living, Kim had materials shipped for a round structure with a yurt-style roof, strategically vented to let hot air escape. The project has built not just a house but relationships. Besides being intrigued (there are no similar buildings in the area), Malians find it uplifting that the doctor had a permanent edifice constructed instead of renting. This has meant jobs for some locals, but more importantly, the villagers feel a sense of security with a surgeon nearby.
Having access to such a doctor isn’t a luxury; it’s a critical need. And Kim is performing surgery for conditions he’s never treated before. Unlike Americans, Malians typically delay for months before seeking medical attention. As a result, the disease process or damage can be quite advanced by the time a doctor is involved. Burns are a disturbingly common example, because cooking is done over open fires on the ground, near where children play. Unless there is aggressive early treatment, victims can suffer long-term complications since burn wounds scar down and tighten as they heal, limiting movement. Surgery is often necessary to remove scar tissue and replace it with skin grafts.
In the U.S., specialists handle urologic, orthopedic, and burn cases. But knowing he would be the only pediatric surgeon on staff at Koutiala, Kim prepared for an expanding surgical repertoire: Before moving overseas, he bought a Kindle textbook for every branch of the field. Now, much of his training comes from reading, emailing plastic surgeon friends, and simply doing.
Dr. Ted Brand, senior partner of Pediatric and Adolescent Surgical Associates in Atlanta, worked with Kim for five years and observed how this “conscientious, hard worker” got ready to practice in an impoverished, isolated setting. “He was enthusiastic to do as much, see as much, prepare as much as he could before going to Mali—both for his own benefit and for the benefit of the children under his care—because [once there, he’d be] taking care of anything and everything with essentially no mentorship, guidance, or assistance.”
Despite all the difficulties, there have been triumphs. Kim’s team performed the first pediatric laparoscopic operation not only at Koutiala but possibly in all of Mali. And the combination of dire need and short supply proves the adage that “necessity is the mother of invention”: Laparoscopy involves inflating the abdominal cavity, but Koutiala couldn’t obtain the medical-grade carbon dioxide gas required; however, improvising with a Honda generator and air compressor made the procedure a success.
Kim may be the hospital’s only pediatric surgeon, but one couldn’t exactly call his position a solo practice. Aside from the more typical “miracles”—namely, healing of burns, tumors, and congenital malformations by means of operating—there are also the inexplicable, supernatural ways that God makes His presence known. For instance, one boy underwent the successful removal of a kidney tumor, but surgery was just part of the necessary treatment. “By God’s providence,” Kim said, “the only two chemotherapy agents the hospital has are the two exact ones [the boy] needs.”
Other life-changing outcomes also reveal how the Lord is touching Malians at Koutiala. Kim described the case of a teenage patient named Nouhoum: “His tumor was a huge, weeping, fungating mass erupting through the skin of his groin. We don’t know how long he had it, but my guess is at least one year. He was miserable—he didn’t smile; he limped because of the large size. It reeked of rotting flesh, and horseflies were swarming to it.” After the melon-sized mass was removed, the wound healed completely; Nouhoum now walks normally and is all smiles. He recently told his doctor about the most profound aspect of his healing: After receiving a Messenger, he and his father both trusted in Jesus.
In a place with more than its share of obstacles, medical triumphs are vital encouragements—as are spiritual breakthroughs in the small Christian community. Both kinds of victory explain Kim’s answer to that “why in the world” question: “Singular passion allowed us to try to forsake all and move to Mali. Our passion is to simply preach Christ and Him crucified. The way we strive for that is through compassionate surgical care, empowering pastors, sharing the gospel with patients and their families, and distributing God’s Word all over Mali.”
Not so crazy after all.
Read more about how the Kims came to be in Mali in the digital exclusive “Cross Purposes,” by Sandy Feit.