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Her Best for the Least

by Becky Keife

On the back of a rickety motorbike, three-year-old Osoro clung to his mother’s waist as they traversed rocky dirt roads on their way to Kimbilio Hospice. The young mother knew nothing about their destination, except that it was “the place where people are helped.”

Eight months earlier, her son’s face reflected the beauty and radiance of the African sun—before a massive tumor grossly disfigured it. With nowhere else to turn, the fearful mother ushered her son into the hospice, desperately hoping someone could save him.

Juli McGowan ’01 welcomed the pair, listening to a heartbreaking story of futile attempts to get treatment. Just days earlier, McGowan, a nurse practitioner and the hospice director, watched a documentary highlighting Burkitt’s lymphoma, a treatable cancer with a high incidence among children in equatorial Africa. McGowan immediately consulted with a pediatric oncologist working in a nearby town; the next morning, Osoro received a full workup and began chemotherapy. “Osoro’s journey to Kimbilio amazes me,” McGowan said. “To think that God would choose our facility to be an answer to a mother’s prayers, moves me deeply.”

McGowan first experienced Africa in summer 2000, when she knelt on the floor of a mud hut to help deliver a baby, and stooped to wash the wounds of a man dying of AIDS. She had no idea that the month-long mission trip to Kenya as an Azusa Pacific University nursing student would begin a decade-long commitment of serving that country’s poor and hurting. Upon returning to APU for her senior year, McGowan worked at the AIDS Service Center in Pasadena. “APU prepared me to be a nurse that cares for my patients—physically, emotionally, and spiritually,” McGowan said. “But before my trip to Kenya or my time at the AIDS Service Center, I had no interest in working in Africa or the field of HIV. After these two experiences, it was very clear where God was leading.”

After graduation, McGowan spent three years working with AIDS patients in the Infectious Disease Unit at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and took two more summer trips to Kenya. By 2004, she had earned a master’s degree in nursing and moved to Kenya to work as a nurse practitioner with Empowering Lives International (ELI) in the areas of HIV community mobilization for testing and treatment, and orphan care.

While in Kenya, McGowan witnessed how the stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV intensifies the way AIDS destroys the body, mind, and spirit of its victims. In five years with ELI, she saw countless patients rejected by their families or communities; in the hour they needed support most, they were left in pain to die alone. “God impressed within my heart the need for hospice care in Kenya,” said McGowan.

In 2009, the plight of thousands of Kenyans in critical need of palliative care inspired the birth of Living Room Ministries International and the creation of Kimbilio, a 26-bed inpatient hospice for children and adults living with terminal illnesses. Each day, Kimbilio’s staff treats more than a disease; they care for a person —physically, psychosocially, and spiritually. McGowan’s greatest blessing is seeing Jesus in patients like Eddah, whose physical and spiritual healing now compel her to, in turn, feed her roommate or hold a malnourished baby. “It’s always surprising to find Him in the poor and dying, although that’s exactly where Jesus said He would be—near the brokenhearted and within the ‘least of these.’”

Vicky Bowden, DNSc, RN, WASC accreditation officer, nursing professor, and director of the Honors Program, mentored McGowan and now points to her work as an example of what God can do through students open to His leading. “It is so humbling to see our nursing students take the small kernels of knowledge we share with them and build beyond the dream,” Bowden said.“We focus on nursing interventions; they go beyond to be real difference makers, to pursue God’s work in ways we cannot even imagine.”

Current nursing students will work with McGowan, a 2008 APU Academic Hall of Honor inductee, this summer when the School of Nursing and the Office of World Missions sponsor a short-term missions trip to Kimbilio Hospice. Whether or not the excursion inspires these students to make Kenya their future home, McGowan issues an important reminder that challenges them to consider the call of God upon their lives, to be disciples and scholars who reflect the life of Christ and shine the light of Truth: “God is big, and the way we live our lives matters. Living Room strives to create a community of compassion that honors life and offers hope. This goes beyond a geographical location or a hospice home. What will you do?”

Becky Keife is a freelance writer living in Glendora, California. beckykeife@gmail.com

“It’s always surprising to find Him in the poor and dying, although that’s exactly where Jesus said He would be—near the brokenhearted and within the ‘least of these.’”

Originally published in the Summer '12 issue of APU Life. Download the full issue (PDF).