Humble, faithful and, above all, brave are words that come in my mind when I think about Mariam Keita. Mariam is a quiet person, but on several occasions as she tried to talk about how so many people cared for her over the nine months of her breast cancer treatment in Ithaca, emotions of joy and thanks welled up within her and she was unable to finish her sentences. Tears fell from her eyes to express the love she had experienced. Mariam, her family, the Evangelical Baptist Church of Bamako (EBCB), and all her friends are touched and forever grateful for the generosity of women and men of First Baptist and other Ithaca churches, Cayuga Medical Center and Roswell Park Cancer Institute doctors, technicians, nurses and staff, and all the volunteers of Mariam's Care, the care-giving group that formed to support her and her family during their stay.
My husband Bill and I got to know Mariam and Andre in Bamako, Mali, during the five and one-half years we lived there and attended her husband, Pastor Andre's, church the Evangelical Baptist Church of Bamako (EBCB). Pastor Andre has built his congregation from few to many to the point that the church is now constructing its own building and is serving others through its outreach mission to several villages northeast of Bamako. By the time of these events my husband had returned to the US to prepare for the return of our family.
Mariam and I met almost every Sunday at
church. Mariam had, after 11 years of marriage, just given birth by
Caesarian to Jokebed, named after the mother of Abraham in the Bible.
Mariam's story is about her stoicism in the face of possible death
the series of amazing events and people that gave her a chance at life
with her daughter and continued service to God's people with her
husband in Mali.
I especially remember the day when seven-day-old Jokebed was presented at church. The church was crowded, for many came to honor the couple and newborn Jokebed. All participated to make the ceremony truly unique. It was magnificent. Everybody wanted to express his or her appreciation to the couple. I truly experienced the joy of being part of this friendly church. Mariam was radiant, as was her husband Andre; both their faces were shinning and smiling, an image of a happy family blessed with a baby.
Unknown to me at the time was that Mariam had undergone surgery to remove a nodule on her breast a year before. The lab results reported that the tumor was benign, but that she was pre-disposed to cancer, and was advised not to take the birth control pill. However, four months later, Mariam was pregnant and the nodule had returned and doubled in size. It was clear that the nodule grew as her pregnancy progressed, fed by the hormones that were also bringing forth the joyful birth of their first-born. In the face of all this physical suffering, Mariam now had to decide whether or not to carry the pregnancy to term, as she had been advised that the cancer could not be treated while she remained pregnant. The life that was springing forth decided everything for her and her husband. Her desire to give birth to life was stronger than the threat of possible death. Filled with faith in God, but conscious of the risk to her own survival, Mariam opted for the life of her child.
Just two months before the birth of Jokebed, Mariam underwent a needle biopsy "treatment" by her gynecologist. This became infected and, in treating it, a nurse, thinking it was a skin infection, squeezed what was in reality a tumor. Now, Mariam was in great pain and not sleeping. I first became aware of the sadness of the situation when we were often invited at church to pray for Mariam's health. What amazed me was the peace and joy reflected in Mariam's face even during her worst times of suffering and pain. I witnessed the frequent and profound prayers that were expressed at the EBCB. We prayed with all our hearts.
I had returned to the US when I received an email from a friend and member of the church cabinet at EBCB that Pastor Andre's wife Mariam was seriously ill with breast cancer and had little hope of receiving adequate treatment in Bamako.
As members of the Bamako church began gathering all medical information, I approached the only doctor in our church in Ithaca, an internist, for advice and assistance to translate certain words in the medical documents into English so that missionary friends of Mariam and Andre could use the documents to bring Mariam somewhere in the US for treatment. While in Mali she could receive a mastectomy and a semblance of chemotherapy. However, her previous experience with hospital treatments there did not encourage her and the final and necessary treatment for her aggressive form of breast cancer "radiation therapy" was not available anywhere in Mali.
Initial efforts seemed positive for Mariam to go to the USA and preparations were begun! Then, suddenly, it was no go. It was difficult to call Andre to tell him the news. I can still remember the strain in his voice as he tried, being a Pastor, to not make it any more difficult for me, but at the same time he could not hide the fact that his hopes had been dashed. I sensed his great heaviness and pain as he wondered out loud how he would tell Mariam. I tried to be encouraging by reminding him that we were also continuing to seek a place closer by for Mariam to receive treatment.
When I called my wife in Bamako and told her she didn't sleep that night, rocked by Mariam's disappointment. In sympathy and support, she went and spent time with the couple at their home. I later learned that part of Mariam's fear was that she had been traumatized from the experiences of three prior surgeries in Bamako hospitals and that she was very afraid to undergo another surgery in Mali.
God works in His
time and in His ways,
which are beyond the comprehension of humankind.
That next Sunday I asked Dr. Jud Kilgore to see what might be possible with his contacts at our local medical center. By Wednesday, I had received an email from him that I should go see the administrator of the local medical center. He cautioned me, however, that the administrator was very busy so it might take a few days to get an appointment. I quickly prepared the packet of the translated materials and photos sent from Mali and went to leave them off for the medical center administrator to review. When I arrived and said here is a package for the administrator, his assistant said, "He's here now, would you like to see him?" To my surprise and joy, he gave us a qualified yes to our request to take on Mariam's case, the qualification being that the doctors would review her case and also agree to treat her pro-bono. Driving down the hill from the hospital into Ithaca, tears of joy and hope blinded me--how I could have doubted the Lord's ability to help Mariam.
My thoughts and energy then shifted to organizing Mariam's arrival as quickly as possible, including surmounting the next hurdle--a visa for the entire family. Time was of the essence. The advanced state of Mariam's illness left many me with many questions. Would the airline doctors approve her departure? Would the US Embassy believe them, and give them a visa? Dr. Kilgore had advised that this would be a long and difficult fight and he felt that Mariam must come accompanied by her support system and inspiration, her husband and child.
Once the door had been opened a crack everyone who knew Mariam and many who had just learned of her situation let their compassion flow. We all felt and experienced the power of God's wonderful Love as literally, around the globe, prayers, energies, actions were focused following the sign that treatment was possible.
Many people mobilized and worked night and day to make the treatment happen: the Evangelical Baptist Mission pre-funded the air tickets for the entire family in the hope that additional funds could be raised; letters needed by the US Embassy to issue the necessary visas were obtained; the medical center promised to cover all medical expenses once the many doctors and surgeons and the all-important radiation group agreed to work pro-bono; First Baptist Church in Ithaca promised to cover all other non-medical expenses; their hosts Sue and Tony sent a letter to the American Embassy in Mali inviting the Theras to live in their home (not far from the medical center) for the duration of the 6 to 9-months of expected treatment; and EBCB wrote a letter of temporary furlough for their Pastor until such time as his wife completed her treatment.
We had hoped that Mariam could leave that Wednesday, since we learned that her condition and pain had worsened considerably in the week since the first evacuation attempt to the States had failed. However, no space was available until the Friday flight. Prayer vigils were held at the church as Andre, Mariam, Mali church trustees, missionaries, doctors, airline doctors, and many church members worked day and night to prepare the required paperwork in record time. All of the passports, airline medical clearance, photos, etc. were ready for the embassy interview. Emails and telephone calls of support from friends and former missionaries now elsewhere in the world continued to come in to Andre and Mariam in Mali.
Within seven days all was in place and Mariam and family left for their new temporary home in Ithaca, New York State. The trip wasn't easy for them, especially when they arrived at New York. They were shocked, but managed to overcome their timidity of speaking English and facing a new culture and world.
The family spent nine months in Ithaca. One of their biggest initial fears was that they might do something that would displease their hosts Susan Eymann and Tony Lister. Andre said that this soon was no longer a concern as, "We saw in Tony and Sue, people who accepted us. They showed us the hearts of a mother and a father. We are all touched by their love." Tony says that "Andre and Mariam are both such wonderful people and we received so much more than we gave sharing our home with them. It was such a joy to have Jokebed with us all that time."
Mariam and Andre said that throughout their treatment, though services were being given to them pro-bono, they were always treated with respect and caring love.
the fight against the cancer, during the chemotherapy and radiation
treatments, we never felt alone due to all the people—medical staff,
Mariam’s Care, Sue & Tony, the people from the Churches, the
visits, the electronic messages and the phone calls—embracing us."
A small group of committed people to help in all of the aspects of taking care of Mariam, Andre, and Jokebed was needed once they were in the US. A French-speaking counselor then at the Ithaca Breast Cancer Alliance, Debbie Allen, volunteered to co-chair the group that would be formed. She had worked with many people in similar situations and to help us get ready, suggested a book called "Share-the-Care." The concept is that everyone is busy but that if one or two people coordinate a group, then taking care of the person who is ill becomes easier because no one person ends up with too much of the care-giving work. We held the first meeting, and the "share-the-care" group for Mariam chose the name "Mariam's Care."
The Ithaca community has an amazing number of organizations and people who were asked (and accepted) to help: Cayuga Medical Center in collaboration with Roswell Park Cancer Institute (based in Buffalo but with staff at Cayuga Medical Center) and their associated doctors and technicians, the Ithaca Breast Cancer Alliance; a pediatrician who cared for Jokebed; First Baptist Church as the coordinating center; Unitarian Church-based not-for-profit Babies First for initial baby formula and other supplies such as baby carriage and a car seat, and members of several area churches for transportation, baby-sitting, teaching, comforting, cooking, talking, financially, writing thank-you notes to donors, etc.
As Mariam's Care formed and became
known, word spread from person to person, from church to church, and
miraculously, a core group of around 50 people, who would support
Mariam during her most difficult times during the treatment, came
together as her care-giving group (16 of whom spoke French, 5 nurses
and 2 woman medical doctors). A friend of a friend, a woman
from Mali who spoke Bambara, the most widely spoken language in Mali
made contact. Then came the Francophones, who, knowing one another,
grew the group to include a French woman translator, a French medical
doctor, a doctoral student from Ivory Coast, a Haitian woman doctor,
people from many area churches, a woman who had worked in a publicity
firm for a famous Malian musician and her husband who would be among
the first doctors to assess Mariam's cancer, another, a young woman
from Gabon, and a woman from Francophone Canada! A close
family friend and mentor Jean Beckley, a retired missionary who had
served in Mali, fortunately lived only two hours from Ithaca. Her
husband had run the school and been a teacher for Andre Thera during
his training to become a pastor. Mama Beckley came during the first
week of their stay and oriented them to the kitchen and household
appliances and shopping in American stores.
The Roswell Park Cancer Institute had instituted CarePages, which gave Andre and Mariam a way to communicate interactively with loved ones and supporters across the globe. On this website they were able to track Mariam's progress with weekly or bi-weekly updates and to provide photos of the patient and family for all who had access to see. Friends, church members and family in Mali and around the globe wrote messages on the blog part of the CarePages and they, in turn, were able to respond.
All aspects of caring for Mariam and her family came from the amazing community around us. Church members from several area churches volunteered time to take care of Jokebed while Mariam completed treatments or had medical appointments at the hospital. Others came to tutor Mariam and Andre in English or take them shopping. Mariam learned to quilt, knit, and improved her sewing over the many months of treatment and convelesance, all with the help of Mariam's Care volunteers.
"I really applaud them," said Sue, "for their adaptation to our culture." "This experience has opened our horizons to Africa in a very personal way," said Sue. Tony added "You see your life more clearly when you get to live and talk personally with people from another culture." Sue added that "As for having them here in our home, I never once felt like a host or having to take care of them or the baby."
Sue noted that living together was easy, "They both were very helpful. Once Mariam started feeling better, she would prepare dinner. Then they would insist on cleaning up the dishes while Tony and I played with watched Jokebed. That was pure luxury and joy!" Sue recalls that the first the first two months was quite an experience. Various members of Mariam's Care, many whom she didn't know, streamed in and out of the house. "It was Grand Central. One day I came home from work and met someone in the driveway who asked "Who is Sue?" "I just had to let go and not worry what how the house looked on any given day."
Tony noted that he observed how hard it was for Andre to be away from his church, school, and family--simply by the exuberance, animation and absolute pleasure he took in talking in his own languages to family or good friends visiting by phone or in person. It was also frustrating for him to receive bad or troubling news from home. One joy of the time in Ithaca was that Andre had the time to fully experience fatherhood with Jokebed like he wouldn't have been able to as he tended to his congregation in Mali.
When the treatment had been completed, Mariam and Andre talked their ordeal ordeal in Mali through the time of treatment in the United States.
Pastor Andre described the situation they lived through in Mali as a nightmare. "I spent a lot of time in fasting and prayer in order to stay optimistic in this environment of despair." He continued, "Family members couldn't visit Mariam without crying. The family had just watched a sister on my side of the family die of the same disease--breast cancer. On the positive side, our whole circle of friends within and outside Mali encircled us with love and helped us during the difficult times. I am a Pastor, one engaged to serve others. To find myself on the receiving end of all this attention by others, was new and strange for me."
Mariam said that the birth of their daughter and the presence of her husband at her side throughout her illness and difficult treatment motivated her to fight the disease and that God has and will continue to work in her life. "In looking at Jokebed each day, I was able to forget the pain in my breast, the pain of the chemotherapy, and the disappointment of losing my breasts."
Today, despite having left Bamako with stage 4 breast cancer not knowing if she would see her homeland Mali again, Mariam has been successfully treated - a breast cancer survivor. And we are all praying that five years will pass and that she will be considered cured.
Mariam said then that her dreams were to return to Mali, to "visit her village and to serve God's ministry to humankind. "God is generous beyond the hopes of His people," she and Andre echoed (thinking of the words of Philippians 4:19). Then Mariam concluded, "Today, we are going back home with hope."
To help support Mariam Keita and Andre Thera personally in their work in Mali, West Africa, you may send a check payable to FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH and mail to First Baptist Church, P.O. Box 254, Ithaca, NY 14851. If you would like to further designate your support, please note on the check memo line: Mariam & Andre Support Fund or one of their projects: Neighborhood Youth Center, or EBCB Village Ministry.
What does the Lord require of you?
To do Justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.
Peace to all who enter here.