Steve James, CRNA, suffered a terrible loss in 2001, when his 19-year-old daughter Brittney passed away. After losing Brittney, James and his family found themselves picking up the pieces of their lives and incorporating those from Brittney’s.
A year after his daughter’s death, James was compelled to visit a young boy who Brittney sponsored for three years in Western Kenya named Newton. Brittney had hoped one day to meet Newton, but did not have the chance. Upon reaching Kenya, James quickly experienced the same emotions that once fueled his daughter to contribute to this underserved country. From there, his life would forever change.
James recalls his earlier mission trips to Maasai Land Kenya, where, like Newton, so many children and adults suffered, and in some cases died, due to basic needs and medical treatment going unmet.
“There were times when we would pass out medicine from the back of a van. We began arranging three-day clinics that consisted of 10 to 15 team members. On one trip, we saw 800 patients a day, a total of 2,400 people within those three days. Thankfully, we were able to distribute medicine, but many required much more than that. Unfortunately, we were unable to fully care for them because of limited resources,” said James.
However, 10 years later, much has changed. James and his ever-growing team of supporters established Brittney’s Home of Grace, a 60-acre orphanage in Migori, Kenya. The orphanage is a safe place where more than 140 children and adults call home and never have to worry about going hungry or being without medical care.
“Our first clinic operated without electricity or running water. I remember a cow sticking its head into the surgery room. During another surgery, children were peeking through the window. We’ve come a long way since then,” said James.
In the past 10 years, Kenya Relief has organized many mission trips, averaging 20 each year. To date, more than 1, 100 nurses and doctors have volunteered with the organization and have treated more than 60,000 patients. In 2010, Kenya Relief hosted its first international team with physicians from India, Sweden, Switzerland and other regions of Kenya. The organization is also credited with adding a water filtration system, providing more than 400,000 nutritious meals to the hungry, establishing a goat sharing system for widows, and constructing a state-of-the-art operating room. In January 2013, the Kenya Relief Academy opened its doors and now provides schooling for 270 children within the community.
For many Kenyans, oftentimes the smallest of needs progress to serious conditions because they go untreated. Without the help provided by Kenya Relief, many Kenyans would have little or no chance of receiving the appropriate medical attention for urgent and common health needs.
“Something as simple as having cataract surgery can require the average Kenyan family to save every dollar earned from their annual income for two years. It is virtually impossible to do. That is why our efforts are so greatly needed. I intend to continue my efforts until the day I leave this earth,” said Elizabeth Studley, a CRNA from Michigan who practices at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor and Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. Studley, who has taken four mission trips with Kenya Relief since 2009, is joined by other nurse anesthetists who have become regular volunteers with Kenya Relief, most of whom view it as a life-changing experience.
“I cannot think of words that are powerful enough to fully describe the impact that serving with Kenya Relief has had on my life. I have seen precious orphaned children given a second chance in life. I have seen severely disfiguring goiters and cleft lips replaced by beautiful smiles. I have seen men, women and children receive medical care that saves their lives and restores their hope. It is healthcare at its purest—simply taking care of people who are in desperate need and have nowhere else to turn. It is truly a life-changing experience,” said Medical Missions Coordinator Molly Shaw, a CRNA who works at Brookwood Hospital in Birmingham, Ala. Shaw began volunteering with the organization in 2012 and participated in two trips. This year she will be leading a gynecology medical team in May and an ear, nose and throat team in October.
Lara Barrow, a CRNA in Louisville, Ky., who works at Norton Audubon Hospital in Louisville, describes her volunteer experience as exhilarating. “The working conditions are very basic, but they maximize your potential. As a provider, you have to remain flexible because the conditions are so different than what we are used to in the United States. However, it is a wonderful experience because you are working side-by-side with professionals who share the same common goal of helping others who really need it.”
When asked what motivates him to continue his mission with Kenya Relief, James attributes his determination to a sense of accountability. “There are 43 million people in Kenya and more than 1 million orphans. It’s impossible for me to be aware of the devastation and poor medical conditions that threaten so many Kenyans and not do something about it,” said James.
Once again, James and the Kenya Relief volunteers are “doing something about it.” There are plans to build a 300-bed community hospital that will serve thousands of patients and provide comprehensive care, from labor and delivery to pediatric to specialty surgery care services.
James works as a staff nurse anesthetist at Vaughan Regional Medical Center in Selma, Ala. In addition to his work with Kenya Relief, James also makes time to speak at local churches, civic groups, hospitals, and participate and attend his state association meetings. He lives with his wife, Greta. In addition to his daughter Brittney, James has two sons, Mark, 35, and Joshua, 26.