Roger and Melanie Reiners of Milbank departed for Sierra Leone Tuesday, July 18, on a three-week trip to continue their work with the Kissy... Roger and Melanie Reiners Leave for Sierra Leone

Roger and Melanie Reiners of Milbank departed for Sierra Leone Tuesday, July 18, on a three-week trip to continue their work with the Kissy United Methodist Church Eye Hospital in Freetown. Despite fracturing his hip in a work-related fall at the end of June, Roger is eager to return to Sierra Leone. This will be his 27th trip; Melanie’s 17th trip.

The couple will join Dr. Lowell Gess, the 96-year-old ophthalmologist who founded the hospital. “The three of us have been joking that I get to be the muscle in the group,” Melanie said and laughed. “But the people there are really dependent on Roger, and he is really looking forward to returning.”

Dr. Gess began his ministry in Africa in 1952, and has served over 50 years as an ophthalmologist in Sierra Leone. Over 25 of those years were spent at the Kissy Eye Hospital. “This trip will be my final one,” Dr. Gess said. Melanie quickly added, “He says this will be his last trip, but he’s said that five times. Even the bishop over there says you can’t believe it.”

Dr. Gess lived in Sierra Leone for 18 years. After that, he returned for three months at a time for over 30 years. The Ebola Virus Disease hit the eastern part of Sierra Leone in 2014. Nearly 30,000 people were infected. Dr. Gess, at age 93, again answered God’s call to serve, because only medically-trained persons were allowed in the country. At the height of the disease, he spent two months treating infected people. It was then he discovered patients who appeared to have returned to health still had active ebola virus in their eyes. This prompted him to contact the Center for Disease Control, Doctors Without Borders and the World Health Organization with his findings. These findings are also what prompted the research team from Emory University to initiate a program on post-Ebola eye complications at the eye hospital. “We are very thankful for their research program as well,” he smiled. “We are blessed.”

Dr. Gess said he began his work in Sierra Leone after a calling from God. “I felt a spiritual call when I was 11 years of age to become a medical missionary. I just followed that. It has been wonderful. This is really a Christian ministry. Many people regain their sight following the surgeries, but many gain insight into the love of God. I wouldn’t be going there if I wasn’t sharing what is important – the call.” The ministry of Dr. Gess focuses on 1 Corinthians 9:23 which states, “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”

Roger began his travels to Sierra Leone in January 1982. “In 1981, Dr. Gess and his wife, Ruth, did a presentation on Missions Sunday at Central Church and told about building the eye hospital,” Roger said. “Walt Erdman said he could get a group of guys together to help build the hospital.” The first group of Milbank men included Roger, Jim Mundwiler, Floyd Bohn, Loren Ebsen, and Arvid Liebe. Other teams from Central Church continued its work in 1983 and 1984 and completed construction of the hospital in 1987.

During the 11-year civil war in the county in the 1990s, work teams were unable to travel to Sierra Leone. When the war ended and the country became more stable, volunteers returned to the country in 2004 and have sent teams annually since that time.

Roger and Melanie typically travel to Africa once or twice a year, and have gone nearly every year since the Civil War ended in the early 2000s. “We normally don’t go at this time of year, which is their winter season,” Roger said. “It’s their rainy season, and they average around 230 inches of rain each year.”

Medical professionals from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, are completing their final round of research on ebola in Sierra Leone. Roger explained, “That’s the reason we are going now – to get this final round of research completed.” Additional projects include transforming a temporary area into a permanent location for the treatment of future epidemics and breakouts, and repairing a ceiling in a surgical building.

Melanie finds herself in very familiar territory during her trips to Sierra Leone. Coming from a long career in the eye care business, she typically finds herself helping with the eyeglass inventory, maintaining the equipment, and teaching much needed business skills to the local people. “Not everyone wears glasses there even if they need it, so it’s more the professional people who want them and want to look nice in glasses” she said.

Roger helps with many accounting duties of the hospital at the compound and other areas. “In my recent years, I typically hire out and supervise others with these projects, so this trip should not be much different. I can easily do the same as I have done, despite my fall,” Roger smiled.

Staff Writer

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