“Joseph, you have a special place in the history of South Sudan, as the first patient treated, in-country, for Burkitt’s lymphoma. But in God’s story and in His Kingdom, your place is even more special, more privileged and is secure for eternity! God has called you home, in His perfect timing, and your story needs to be told. Your ten years on this earth has left an impact and we are proud to have been involved in your last few months here. We admire your faith and courage, and look forward to seeing you again in eternity!”
A desperate journey
Joseph arrived at His House of Hope in February 2013. He had a large lump on his left cheek that had been growing over the previous year and, when we first saw him, was the size of a mango. He had been to several other clinics with no diagnosis or options for treatment. He had heard of our new hospital and walked the six miles from his home, alone, believing that maybe, at His House of Hope, God would heal him.
(It was months later, that we discovered the amazing background to this part of the story. Apparently, Joseph had disappeared one day – three days later, many people in his village, including his family, concluded that he had taken his own life. So convinced were they of his death, that they began to make arrangements for his funeral. It was in these three days, however, that Joseph had walked to His House of Hope. We could now understand why Joseph’s grandfather was so emotional when we were finally able to make contact with him by phone! He told us later, that we had phoned as Joseph’s funeral was about to start – he then had the joyous duty of announcing that he was cancelling the funeral…..because “HE IS NOT DEAD, HE IS ALIVE!” )
An amazing healing
We were able to do a biopsy and give a diagnosis – Burkitt’s lymphoma, the commonest cancer in children in Africa, usually responsive to chemotherapy but often rapidly growing and fatal if left untreated. But in a low resource country like South Sudan, there are no available cancer treatments and if not supervised well, the risks of chemotherapy are high, as the patient’s bone marrow and immune system are suppressed during treatment. Was there anything we could offer Joseph?
The events that followed were truly of God. Only He could have orchestrated circumstances to give Joseph the hope and healing that he needed.
An email to a haematologist friend in Australia put us in contact with a Professor of Paediatric Oncology in South Africa, who had developed protocols for treating Burkitt’s lymphoma in countries such as Ghana, Malawi and Cameroon. Amazingly, (another story in itself!), we had the opportunity to meet this professor in South Africa, obtain the critical medication, and return to South Sudan with a proven protocol of treatment to trial on Joseph’s cancer.
Joseph received 4 cycles of chemotherapy during the next 6 weeks and the lump on his face vanished. He survived malaria and life threatening infection and anemia. The cancer had responded to treatment! When he had re-gained his strength and his blood counts recovered to normal, he was able to return to his village and was re-united with his mother and grandfather.
As a team, we were overjoyed and in awe – at God’s healing power and providence over circumstances, and at Joseph’s faith, courage and perseverance under an extreme trial. We were the privileged witnesses of the first known case of Burkitt’s to be treated in South Sudan!
A tragic ending
Several months later, however, we received the terrible news that Joseph had died. When we searched for details, we learned that his death was a result of something completely unrelated to the Burkitt’s lymphoma. We struggled to make sense of this – a ten year old boy lives through a civil war, overcomes cancer, and then meets a tragic death, just months after he is cured. Why does this happen, when God’s hand was so clearly at work in his healing from lymphoma?
We are still wrestling with this and there are no easy answers. We live in a tragically broken world, a consequence of mankind’s sin and rejection of God’s perfect and loving rule. And God is alive and active in this world, bringing hope and healing, grace and regeneration, as He seeks and saves we who are lost. But His Wisdom is much deeper, His Plan is far greater, and His Love is never-ending! So we will trust Him – in triumph and in tragedy – because He is Good and His Ways will be seen as right and perfect into eternity.
Oh the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’……For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever! Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)