YENDI, GHANA (KMOV.com) -- A team of St. Louis area doctors and volunteers are saving lives on the other side of the world, but a break-out of deadly violence nearly put their mission on hold. Instead of throwing in the towel, they went to work against all odds to make St. Louis Proud.
Dusty, desolate, and distant describes Yendi, Ghana to most foreigners. Yet, it's the place doctors Patti and Jonathan Limpert fell in love with.
"The most generous, happy, loving, welcoming people I've ever met," said Dr. Patti Limpert, describing her friends in Africa from her Washington, MO breast surgery office.
A smile comes to her face as she thinks of the families in the northern region of Ghana. But that fades when detailing the hospital where too often, she says, people went to die rather than be treated.
"There's no running water, no toiletries. Families sleep on the outside concrete because there's no place for anyone else to stay," said Limpert.
There, a single doctor serves nearly 300,000 people in the area.
"To take on the young and the old all with different illnesses, surgical and non-surgical, I cannot imagine that load on anyone," said Limpert.
Still, this is exactly where a team from the St. Louis area wants to bring their medical expertise.
"People still say I'm crazy," said Dr. Jonathan Limpert, Patti's husband and a general surgeon at Mercy Hospital in Washington, MO. "We don't get called to serve in easy environments, easy places," said Limpert, speaking during a short break on a recent trip to Yendi.
The Limperts are part of a group "Crossing4Mercy." It's a 15-year old friendship that first brought the group to Yendi.
"A local pastor here in New Haven, Missouri had met this Ghanaian pastor when they were on a Baptist retreat," said Patti Limpert.
The Ghanaian Pastor, Emmanuel Mustapha, explained that his daughter died at the hospital years ago. Pastor Joe Nogalski committed to making medical care more accessible in Yendi. In the years since, Crossing4Mercy grew with doctors, nurses, cooks, high school students, and other volunteers wanting to serve with their time and talent.
But in January 2019, that commitment was put to the ultimate test. Days before the group was set to leave for its latest mission, unexpected violence broke out.
"In our community, we have what we would call chiefs, and the Yendi is the seat, or the headquarters of all the Dagomba tribe. So, this is the seat of the overlord of Dagbon," said Mustapha. He has been Crossing4Mercy's life-line to Yendi for more than a decade. "Two tribes clashed and one of the chiefs was beheaded."
That was years ago. But the royal funeral was just recently set to be performed, which triggered new violence.
"Gun shots, people were running. In fact, I came to a point where they were burning motorbikes, and some houses where being burnt. And I can't give you the exact number that where killed but people were killed," said Mustapha.
Nearly 6,000 miles away in St. Louis County, Crossing4Mercy group leaders were trying to understand what was unfolding blocks from the hospital they would soon be departing Lambert Airport to work in.
"It was heart-wrenching because we knew this was the time they needed us the most. But we also knew we couldn't risk our own safety to go in and help others," said Dr. Patti Limpert.
They made the tough call to send a smaller team of essential personnel and doctors for a shorter visit.
Still fresh on his mind during the January trip, Dr. Jonathan Limpert reflected on the turmoil.
"That unrest caused us to have to dig deep and kind of find our way, our path, of how we continue to serve in this area just like other areas of the world that are unstable. So we had to do a lot of prayer," said Limpert.
Once there, though, they hit the ground running, performing 75 surgeries in just three and a half days.
"There was a mother who I first met nursing her baby. She had this huge thyroid goiter, the largest thyroid I've ever seen," Dr. Patti Limpert recalled one of the dozens of patients they were able to treat during those few days. "And she started nursing her baby as soon as she woke up."
Work continued with a women's health summit, addressing maternal and fetal death rates. They expanded Mercy virtual technology, allowing staff in Yendi to contact experts back here in St. Louis with the push of a button.
St. Louis-based architectural and engineering firm BSA lent its expertise to design a whole new hospital, with hopes it can be built in the near future. The group also met with the Ghanaian government's Ministry of Health to plead on behalf of the rural hospital for more state support.
It was a trip that almost didn't happen, to a region often forgotten about, that gave way to some of the most impactful and meaningful medical treatment.
"Our hope is they will have the providers they deserve per capita, and they don't need our help," said Patti Limpert. "And someday we just go back to say hi and to have a social visit and see our friends."
The uncertainty they felt when that violence first interrupted plans this year, has now been washed away by a renewed commitment to the people of Yendi, from the medical experts of St. Louis.