"There is an expression, they say that Africa either bites you or kicks you," Maureen Sloan said near the end of our time together last week. "If you are bitten, it is like an immunization. It gets in your blood, and you love it. And that is what happened to us."
That was Sloan's explanation as to why she is about to embark on her fifth trip to Africa, taking her daughter along for the second time. She plans to offer nursing information and core Christian teachings to the staff at the CURE Hospital of Uganda, and to the people of Mbale.
Sloan was bitten by Africa when she was 10 years old, living in her native Canada. Missionaries hosted by her parents along with her Sunday school teacher, a missionary on furlough from Africa, shared reels of film and many stories about Africa that captivated her.
She then spent the next 37 years praying to go and gaining the skills and experience she will need while there.
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All that time will better enable her to dedicate herself to those answered prayers as she embarks on her new life's mission as a team leader for CURE International. As such, she will lead teams of physicians and other volunteers a couple of times each year to Uganda.
CURE International is a faith-based non-profit organization that was founded in 1996 by a physician and his wife to cure disabled children in Kenya of their maladies. CURE now has 10 hospitals in nine developing countries, Uganda being one of them.
The medical conditions there include hydrocephalus, cleft palate, clubfoot, spina bifida and other deformities and crippling conditions.
According to its Web site, CURE is the "largest provider of pediatric specialty surgical care in the developing world." CURE also offers Christian spiritual healing and growth through Bible study for adults and programs for young people.
Just last week, Sloan retired as the team leader of the evening Women's Bible Study Fellowship class in Lexington, a position she has held for 11 years. She also holds a master's degree in nursing and worked in intensive care units for many years before teaching nursing at the graduate and undergraduate levels.
"I could be making a good salary teaching at the university or something, but that has not been my calling," Sloan said.
Instead, her husband, Dr. Paul Sloan, has encouraged her to find her life's mission. That has meant serving on an Indian reservation in northern Canada, working with a church in Jamaica to build a school and with many other mission ventures throughout the couple's travels around the world. Two of their three children were born in Australia.
In addition to the Bible study, Sloan has volunteered at local charities.
"She's the best," said Valerie Henderson, executive director of Lighthouse Ministries, 185 Elm Tree Lane. "She is very schooled in the Bible, and she has a real servant's heart."
Henderson said Sloan would often buy the food and then prepare it for the men in the program's addiction recovery program and others needing a good meal.
"She is very kind and sweet and very dedicated to what she does," Henderson said. "She doesn't do anything half-hearted. She is probably meant to be there" in Africa.
In 2004, Sloan was asked by family friend Dr. Benjamin Warf, who had been the chief of pediatric neurosurgery at the University of Kentucky, to come to Uganda where he was serving as the medical director of the CURE hospital and the director of neurosurgery for CURE International from 2000 to 2006.
So on her first visit, Sloan took her two daughters, Anne and Marie, as well as her son, Mark, and his new bride, Shannon. Anne, a pre-med student, will be traveling with her mother again in June to spend five weeks there.
As a team leader for CURE, Sloan "exhibits the characteristics we like to see," said Jerry Meadows, CURE's director of global outreach. "She has a great heart of compassion for the needy, a real passion for the nation and for the culture. She's very culturally sensitive," he said. "We don't want a renegade out there."
Mbale's economy is based primarily on agriculture with coffee, beans, rice, potatoes, and matooke — a plantain — as its main crops.
"Matooke, which looks like a green banana, tastes like Yukon Gold potatoes," Sloan said. "I love them."
Sloan said she tries to keep a low profile in Mbale, partnering with others and complementing their efforts, rather than leading the way.
"It is so interesting," she said. "I get to see First World medicine being practiced in a Third World country."
For example, some of the people who bring their children to the hospital for treatment must work through lifelong superstitions to see "the joy of a simple operation bringing life and hope to their children," she said.
Although CURE is medically based, they are not just looking for volunteers with medical backgrounds, she said.
"Everybody has a skill set and anyone who has the heart for this kind of work, there is a place for them," she said.
Listening is an important skill, too, Sloan continued. Refugees from the Sudan and women who bring their babies from war-torn parts of Africa want to tell their stories. "Your presence means a lot to these people."
"We have opportunity here," she said. "If we see someone who is homeless, we can offer them a free meal in Lexington and get them plugged into some kind of social service."
That opportunity is not always available in Africa.
"It is very difficult for people in America to understand why people live in such poverty in Africa," she said.