February 23, 2018

At the edge of heartbreak and hope

God’s love guides doctor helping refugees after years of caring for the poor in Africa

Dr. Ellen Einterz, who grew up in St. Matthew the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis, stops to have her photo taken during a community gathering in Cameroon, the African country where she provided love and medical care during the 24 years she served the people there. (Submitted photo)

Dr. Ellen Einterz, who grew up in St. Matthew the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis, stops to have her photo taken during a community gathering in Cameroon, the African country where she provided love and medical care during the 24 years she served the people there. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

If you wanted to share a defining moment from the life of Dr. Ellen Einterz, the natural instinct would be to start with a story from her 24 years of providing love and medical care to people in one of the poorest countries in Africa, people devastated by the impacts of AIDS, cholera and malaria.

But maybe the better beginning involves the e-mail that changed the direction of her life in a way that still stuns the 63-year-old physician.

The e-mail flashed onto her computer screen in the early part of 2016 when she was back in Indianapolis, back in the parish of her family and her youth—St. Matthew the Apostle.

At the time, she was just a few months removed from helping to take care of her dad—the son of an Irish Catholic mother and a father who was a Jewish refugee from Russia—before he died in November of 2015.

At the time, she was also putting the finishing touches on her memoir that captures her experiences in Cameroon, the African country where she long ago arrived in an atmosphere of distrust for the female doctor from America, a country where she helped build a hospital and a network of health professionals to serve people who live daily at the edge of life and death.

At the time, she was also still hoping to return to Kolofata, the community in Cameroon to which she dedicated her life for 24 years. It was the community where she had also become a target of Boko Haram—the terrorist organization that in 2014 killed 17 of her friends and colleagues and kidnapped 17 more, just shortly after she had returned to Indianapolis for a summer visit. Ever since, she’s been told that she’s still a target, and that her return would not only endanger her but others.

Amid all these backdrops, the bold‑highlighted e-mail from the Marion County Health and Hospital Corporation appeared before her.

It was one of a continuing string of e-mails from the same source that she had previously received and always ignored without ever opening. But this time—she’s still not sure why—she opened it. And one word in the text of the e-mail transfixed her:


The message stated that the health organization was looking for a doctor to provide health care for refugees, adding that they didn’t have a physician serving these new arrivals to America.

Einterz thought of her father and her grandfather. She thought about the increasing numbers of refugees who had arrived in Kolofata during the last years she was there. She replied the next day, and she started treating refugees in Indianapolis in June of 2016.

It was another defining moment for her, a moment that led her once again to the belief in God that has marked her life through all the times of heartbreak and hope:

“I have felt the hand of God pushing and pulling me all my life, but always embracing me, making me believe somehow I would not fall. The refugees are now part of that.”

At the edge of life and death

The combination of care, commitment and concern that Einterz gives to her patients is captured in her memoir, Life and Death in Kolofata: An American Doctor in Africa.

The foundation of the book comes from the descriptive, soul-sharing letters from Africa that she wrote home to her family, friends and supporters, including the heartbreaking one that recounted the gruesome death of a small boy who was burned after an oil tanker overturned and caught fire. She ended that letter with this message, “Life is so fragile. Stay close to one another. I love you very much.”

Another story shares the time she had to deliver a child in the courtyard of the place where she lived in Kolofata. The mother-to-be collapsed there on the ground before she could make it to the hospital with two friends by her side.

Einterz wrote, “I felt as if I were watching from above: the black night, the bare bulb above our back door, musicians drumming and piping outside the compound walls, my knees sunk in the sharp sand, the two women hovering and watching and quietly coaching, the mother straining against gritted teeth, the molded head easing ever so slowly into my palms.

“It was a beautiful, peaceful birth, and when it was over and the baby swaddled and the mat cleaned up, we watched the threesome amble off into the darkness from which they had come, one of them carrying the newborn girl, a whole other life just begun.”

For 24 years, Einterz served faithfully and daily at this edge of life and death. What’s even more poignant is that her heart for the people she treated rarely wavered—a reality that shows in a passage she wrote about a small boy and a girl who “endured the kind of pain few of us can imagine” because of sickle cell anemia:

“You root hard for these kids and you stand in awe of them, wondering how they do it, how they hang in there, wondering why they must bear so much pain, imagining that they—like Christ?—must be bearing some of your share for you.”

Where God wanted her to be

If others must bear some of our share of the pain in life, we must share our hearts and our hands to ease that pain, Einterz believes.

With that belief in mind, Einterz leads into her book with this quote from philosopher Francis Bacon, “It is reserved only for God and angels to be lookers on.”

Her journey to making a difference started as she grew up in a family of 13 children where their father kept telling them, “We are Christ, you are Christ, our neighbor is Christ.”

“I grew up with the understanding that I had been given a lot in life—and how much I was expected to give,” she says. “I was aware there was a lot of fixing that needed to be done in the world. It makes no sense to talk about it if you’re not willing to do it.”

At 19, she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger in 1974—a time of major famine in that African country. Surrounded by death and inspired by a need to help, she decided to become a doctor. After medical school, she returned to Africa, spending six years in a Nigerian mission clinic before heading to Kolofata in 1990. When she first saw the hospital there, it took her breath away—for all the wrong reasons.

She remembers the hospital as being dilapidated, a place where thick red dust covered everything. As bad as it looked to her, it was viewed even worse by the local people. Seeing it as a place to die, they avoided it at all costs. They also avoided her at first. Yet when an epidemic of meningitis swept through a village, she was there to help. When only one person died, the trust in her began to rise.

In her 24 years of leadership there, a new hospital was built, which includes a children’s pavilion and a maternity and surgical ward. She also trained nurses, directed the building of health centers in isolated villages, and opened a women’s education center where women and girls learn to read, write and develop skills that can lead to an income.

It was always where she felt God wanted her to be. And she continued to stay, even when the Boko Haram terrorist group started kidnapping foreigners in 2013—a time when local authorities warned her that she was a prime target.

“I tried very much to live in the moment and stay focused on my work and the people who needed me,” she recalls. “I also felt it would be demoralizing for our hospital staff if I left. It seemed the need to stay was so much greater than the need to leave.”

Everything changed in 2014, shortly after Einterz returned to Indianapolis, coming home for the three-month stay that she made a part of her life every two years.

“A few weeks later, 200 fighters attacked Kolofata and came looking for me,” she says, lowering her eyes as her voice also gets lower.

“They ended up killing 17 and kidnapping 17. It was devastating. You feel totally helpless being so far away.”

A heritage built upon hope

The continuing threat to her life hasn’t allowed allow her to return to Kolofata, but it hasn’t stopped her resolve to help others.

From November of 2014 to June of 2015, she did return to Africa to help with an Ebola outbreak in the country of Liberia. And now she provides medical care for refugees who have come to Marion County to start a new life after they had to flee their homeland to save their lives.

The refugees from Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo remind her of the people she cared for and cared about in Kolofata.

“People who again have had terrible things thrust upon them through no fault of their own, often because of religious persecution,” she says. “I thought I should step up and be available for them. In Kolofata, we had already been dealing with increasing numbers of refugees. I already felt an attachment to them.”

The attachment is also strong because it connects to her family.

“My paternal grandfather was a Russian Jew who fell in love with an Irish Catholic. He was a refugee trying to escape religious persecution in Russia. My father tried to keep that heritage alive.”

It’s a heritage built upon hope, no matter how much suffering had to be endured.

“The idea of trekking through the bush under constant threat. People who have had to dig a hole and live underground for months. Mothers and sisters being killed. The loss that they’ve suffered and the pain they have in leaving family behind.

“But they almost all have this radiant sense of hope. They almost always tell me, ‘But that’s behind me.’ They feel things are going to get better.”

A love of people, a love of God

She sees one more telling connection between the refugees and the mothers in Kolofata.

“It’s their self-sacrifice for the good of their family. In many cases, I feel the parents have come not so much for themselves but to give their children a chance. And the children tend to do marvelously.”

That spirit of hope continues to guide her, too, even as she keeps in touch with the people at the hospital in Kolofata.

“The good thing and the only thing that matters is the hospital is working and still going great guns. We saw 2,500 sick people in December. We’re still serving that need. Some of the staff have died. Some have been killed. Some have moved on. But most are still holding the fort. Maybe they don’t need me anymore.”

She seems more pleased than wistful in making that assessment. It’s a perspective forged by the love she has given to others, and the love that God has shared with her.

“It’s easy to see Christ and his mother in the people I have had the privilege to treat. They’re easy to love, and when you love, it’s a pretty nice state of being.

“Theologically, my faith is pretty grounded. I’ve never questioned the love of God in my life. I feel protected and guided by it.” †

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