With one hand lingering on her stethoscope, nursing student Grace Mbuthia gets dreamy as she describes the journey that brought her from a small village in Kenya to Kansas City.
But when she talks about the medical mission she’s organizing — a return to her village in the Great Rift Valley — she lights up.
“I’m excited because it’s finally coming together, but nervous because it’s the first mission and I don’t know how it will go,” she said.
Mbuthia, a nursing student at St. Luke’s College of Health Sciences, has been raising money and asking for donations of medical supplies for a 10-day medical camp in Kiamunyeki, the village where she grew up.
She and three other volunteers fly out on May 28.
The mission will give her a chance to pay forward a gift she received as a child and allow her to fulfill a dream deferred as her family faced challenges, including losing their home in Joplin, Mo., during last year’s tornado.
Mbuthia, 23, knows her life would have been different had she not met a Canadian missionary at a hospital in Kenya when she was in the Kenyan equivalent of seventh grade.
She had been passing out frequently. Her parents took her to doctors who prescribed painkillers and said her unknown illness would go away.
One day, after she had passed out for more than 10 minutes, her father, Pastor Stephen Mbuthia, took her to see a doctor in the city of Nakuru. The doctor said she needed to see a cardiologist. The fee would have been more than her family could afford.
The only cardiologists available were at Kijabe, about 70 miles away.
On the cold and windy day Mbuthia and her father went there, some Canadian doctors were treating people for free. One of them was a cardiologist.
“They ran all kinds of tests on her,” Stephen Mbuthia said.
The doctors said she would outgrow the condition but would need to stay on medication in the meantime.
“She was very excited about it because we didn’t pay a dime for the treatment,” her father said.
Mbuthia has never forgotten her family’s gratitude.
“When you’re young, you say you want to be a doctor and all that, but that incident was the spark that drew me to the medical profession,” Mbuthia said. “I decided that whatever I wanted to do, I knew I’d do the same for somebody else.”
Eight years ago, Mbuthia, her brother, sister and mother followed her father to Missouri after he came to Ozark Christian College in Joplin to study theology. The siblings enrolled at College Heights Christian School in Joplin.
By the time Mbuthia graduated from high school in 2006, she had received a scholarship to study at Missouri Southern State University.
Pastor Cindy Wermuth of the Joplin Family Worship Center met the family when Mbuthia was at Missouri Southern.
“My first impression of her was that she has a very strong heart for God and for people,” Wermuth said.
The girls were mature enough for the parents to move to Kansas City so Stephen Mbuthia could pursue a master’s degree at Nazarene Theological Seminary.
Life was normal until May 22, 2011.
Mbuthia and her siblings were driving back to Joplin after dropping a cousin off at Kansas City International Airport when they received a call.
They got an idea of the scope of the devastation when police turned them back, saying they couldn’t go into the city.
When they got in the next day, they found their apartment heavily damaged by the EF-5 tornado, which killed 161 people and displaced 9,500.
Wermuth and her husband took in Mbuthia and her brother. Her sister moved to California.
Even after losing her home, Mbuthia would volunteer at a sanctuary set up for tornado victims, Wermuth said. “I don’t think that anybody who encountered her imagined that she had lost all that.”
Mbuthia moved to Kansas City in December after being accepted at St. Luke’s. Soon she began thinking about a return to Kenya.
“I had explained the idea to Dad, and he said he would support me,” she said.
Three nurses from Joplin volunteered to join her. In Kenya, she has lined up 12 nurses and two clinical officers to work at the medical camp.
James Hauschildt, the academic dean at St. Luke’s, said the college is proud of her “for undertaking such a wonderful journey.”
“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for her to learn and apply the medical, cultural and spiritual aspects of medical care within the context of another country’s medical practices to benefit her learning,” he said.
Mbuthia and the nurses from Joplin are paying for their own airline tickets. The money she is raising will take care of other costs, including whatever they are charged for excess baggage. In her blog at neemam.wordpress.com, she details the $2,175 in costs she foresees.
She also needs gloves, thermometers, glucose meters, specula and vitamins. St. Luke’s Hospital has offered her a chance to go through its warehouse to pick up a few things.
When the camp is over, the plan is for the group to head to Provincial General Hospital in Nakuru.
People without insurance pay for treatment at public hospitals in Kenya. If they don’t have the money, hospitals usually prevent them from leaving until the bill is paid.
Mbuthia plans to use any leftover money to pay needy patients’ bills.
She “has found the very free happiness in giving,” Wermuth said.