From Russia With Love: Cancer Survivor Returns to Aid Hometown
Kakata, Margibi County – Christiana Hena can still remember the moment she knew she wanted to become a doctor.
“I didn’t want to go to another country. Kakata was very much on my mind. I wanted to return and help my people. After prayerful consideration of my options, I decided to leave the Board of Global Ministries, Kazakhstan, all of my friends in Kazakhstan, my excellent health insurance with the Board of Global Ministries, comfort of having 24 hours of electricity in my home and moved to Liberia. I didn’t have the resources to begin anything, but I had the passion, a resourceful mind and a heart to serve my people”- Christiana Koisey Hena
“It started when I was in the second grade – and lost my classmate, Helen Faulkner. We used to study together and walk home from school together and one Friday morning I got to class and the teacher told us that my friend had died – we later learned it was from malaria. “It was then I decided that I wanted to be a doctor.”
An Uneasy Early Life
Christiana says her friend’s death haunted her for years, knowing that she died of something preventable is a sad reality she has had to live with but one she says has inspired her to become a doctor.
“It haunted me for a long time; I kept hearing it in my ear – go back to your homeland and give back. Liberia is my home; that’s where I was born and raise; this is where I belong”.
Christiana, who spent most of her adult life in Russia never, had it easy, complicated by a rugged upbringing.
A native of Margibi County, Christiana recalls that she was still in Bolahun, when she told her father, following the death of her friend that she wanted to become a doctor.
Her dad, Dominic Hena, she recalls had a friend who worked at the Maternity Hospital in Monrovia and spoke to the friend to mentor her along.
Upon arrival in Monrovia and at the hospital, Christiana recalls, the friend, instead give a mop and a bucket and told her to be a janitor.
“I shined those floors and did what I was asked. I was very humble and was proud in what I was doing until one day, a gynaecologist, Dr. Patricia Divine Jackson ran into me and my life changed after that.”
Patricia took Christiana under her wings, took her through surgery rounds, X-Rays and other medical procedures and pretty much showed her the ropes of the medical profession.
“When she saw me mopping those floors, she asked me what I was doing there and I said I wanted to be a doctor and she said, ‘If you want to be a doctor; this is not where you belong’.
“She exposed me to expose me to the beautiful world of medicine – that changed my life again. I was mentored by her from the 9th grade through 12th. Every vacation I looked forward to going to Monrovia and to working with Dr. Divine.
Not only did Dr. Divine introduce me to the beautiful world of medicine, but she also introduced me to faith in Jesus Christ. Her life was different from all the other physicians that I met at the Maternity Center.”
But despite her in roads, Christiana was limited by societal imbalance of disadvantages.
“After high school – my father could only afford to pay for the University of Liberia even though she was the Salutatorian; I wanted to go to Cuttington.”
A Gesture from Tolbert
Christiana was not about to let her lack of resources hold her back so in 1978, she embarked on a project, many at the time felt was too ambitious for a young girl. She asked a friend to type a letter requesting a scholarship to attend the Cuttington University College in Suacoco, Bong County, from President William R. Tolbert.
She submitted the letter and showed up to at the mansion every day; hoping to see the President until one day, a guard by the name of General Sackie asked her: ‘I see you here every day, what it is you want?’ “What is it you want?”
Christiana says when she told the guard that she was trying to get an audience with the President. He promised to help her and told her to come back the next day.
“Finally, General Sackie took me to see the President. “President Tolbert took my hands and held it and said, ‘you have good hands to be a surgeon’.
Russia Comes Calling
Christiana says the President at that moment ordered that she be given a full scholarship, tuition paid, books and US$50 a month, a lot of benefit for a struggling girl those days.
Christiana says she worked hard to maintain at least a B average in order to stay on the scholarship but her dreams came crashing on April 12, 1980 when a band of low-rank army officers led by Samuel Kanyon Doe, seized power and killed Tolbert in a coup d’état. “My dreams went down the drain that day”, she says.
Not long after the coup, Christiana says she heard that the government had scholarships lined up for young Liberians to travel to Russia and so she took advantage of it and applied.
“I applied and forgot about it. So I’m walking down Waterside one morning and a friend comes calling, ‘haven’t you heard?’
“I didn’t hear it and didn’t have a radio but I had made the cut of students picked to go to Russia to study medicine. Her dad, now 94, gave her US$20 bucks to process her passport and she was off to Moscow.
I successfully completed my studies in 1987. I am a GP and also hold a Master of Public Health Degree from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
Hit by Breast Cancer
But several months after the completion of medical school – came the next chapter of her life.
“I was faced with a deadly disease- breast cancer. At such a young age of 27-years-old, I was devastated, but knew I had to fight and not just sit down and wait to die.
My surgery was done in Sweden – had access to great health care, even though, I didn’t have Swedish Health Insurance. My friends were very generous and helped me get the best of care.”
Christiana recalls that after recovering from the surgery, she departed Sweden for America.
“Upon arrival in the US in 1988, I went for a routine medical check-up before starting my program at Emory University.
Surprisingly, I discovered that the disease was back – in the same area. I underwent more surgery chemo, radiation and had to be on medications for five years.
All this time, I continued to draw my strength from my faith in Jesus Christ and the many friends he blessed me with. I again recovered and started my graduate program at Emory University.”
Just as she was about to complete her studies at Emory, the USSR collapsed.
Christiana says many in the West wanted to make their entry into the country called the Iron curtain but not many people in the West knew much about the Iron Curtain.
According to Christiana, the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church wanted to make their own presence felt in the former republics and were in search of people with knowledge and experience in the culture and political landscape.
“I applied and was accepted among the couple of hundred applicants that applied. Again, I was on my way back to the now former Soviet Union where I had spent seven years of my life earlier.
I was hired as the first medical missionary for the General Board of Global Ministries that was going to serve in the former Soviet Union since the 1917 revolution. Before the 1917 revolution, there were missionaries from Finland and Sweden from the UMC working and living there.
So, it was a great honour and delight for me to have been selected to serve them there. My three-year contract turned into ten years. I worked in many rural areas where there were no doctors and very poor healthcare services.
I had the support of the local communities and leaders. Needless to say, I was the only Black woman serving in all the places that I serve – Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Tajikistan and the rest.”
Despite her many travels, Christiana says she always thought about home, returning to her homeland and giving back to her community – and her friend Helen she lost to Malaria.
“My second grade experience continues to haunt me wherever I went. In 2005, I came to Liberia with four Swedish friends.
Kakata was like a war zone. It was difficult for us to walk anywhere – trash and garbage all over the place. The streets were horrible and disgraceful. I felt ashamed and decided to do something.
It was not treating patients, but rather cleaning their communities which would prevent disease and make them healthier.”
Trumpeting a “Keep Kakata Clean” slogan, Christiana reached out to many and heard stories of the war but says she wanted to be part of the solution and not run around talking about how bad things were.
Left it All for Liberia
In 2012, Christiana used her medical connections to bring in a group of medical and dental team to serve the people of Margibi for ten days and the Philadelphia Church of Kakata served as hosts.
But Christiana says serving the people at the church challenged her to want to do more to change their situation. “Even though I had to return after our ten days to Kazakhstan, I felt it was time for me to move to Liberia and serve my people.”
Her employer, General Board of Global Ministries wanted her to go and serve another African country in 2012 but as much as she enjoyed working for them for 24 years, Christiana says, home was calling her.
“I didn’t want to go to another country. Kakata was very much on my mind. I wanted to return and help my people. After prayerful consideration of my options, I decided to leave the Board of Global Ministries, Kazakhstan, all of my friends in Kazakhstan, my excellent health insurance with the Board of Global Ministries, comfort of having 24 hours of electricity in my home and moved to Liberia. I didn’t have the resources to begin anything, but I had the passion, a resourceful mind and a heart to serve my people.”
Christiana says after sharing her vision with some of her American friends, many were touched and decided to get involved in helping her serve her people.
“Many started to make their resources available to the work. Some came to see what I was talking about and to meet some of my people. When they came and saw the situation, they were even more moved to urgently do something. Resources started coming in from different sources.”
Today, Christiana’s Healthy Women, Healthy Liberia has a team of like-minded doctors, scientists and nurses, who believe in serving other less fortunate and marginalized persons.
The group has been working in Kakata since 2012 catering to some 300 residents monthly, conducting community visits, weekly training of 20 community health workers, providing education in health, sanitation and nutrition, sewing programs, community garden and agriculture and the construction of a state-of-the-art medical center- the Waterfield Primary Healthcare Center-nicknamed after the donor that gave US$200,000 to start the construction.”
Looking back Christiana says she has no regrets. “What best can I do with my life? What would I die doing? That’s what has kept me going and being in Kakata and just having a blast helping my people, has made all the difference to me.”
Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]