Saturday, November 14, 2015

Mission Reassignment to Texas


Eileen and I got reassigned to the Texas San Antonio Mission on Sept 8. We were told the reassignment process would take several weeks but we got a lesson in the amount of pull that Mission Presidents and Stake Presidents can have. We told the Mission President we were ready for the reassignment on a Saturday and he put us in touch with the Stake President who transferred our membership records from Kansas to Texas on Sunday. I got a letter from my cardiologist stating I was fit for service on Monday and e-mailed it to the Stake President that evening. The Stake President sent the letter and other paperwork on to a committee at church headquarters on Tuesday morning. By Tuesday afternoon the missionary Medical Committee had cleared me for service. The Stake President told the Mission President he could request our reassignment to the TSAM. President Slaughter made that request on Wednesday and contacted us on Thursday to tell us the reassignment had been approved but we would have to be set apart to our new mission. We talked to the Stake President on Friday and he set us apart on Sunday afternoon. Our membership records were sent back to Kansas on Sunday evening. Eileen and I started working in the Mission Office at 9:30 a.m. on Monday morning.

President Slaughter with his Assistants in his office
Our first week was pretty hectic as we had no idea what to expect and no preparation for the transfers that would be taking place that week. Things are quite busy for the office staff when transfers take place. The week basically works like this.

The week before transfers the Mission President and his assistants go into the President’s Office, open a big board that shows all the missionaries and where they are serving. They remove the picture cards of all those who are going home in a few days and they add the cards of all the new missionaries that will arrive in a few days. Then they begin to put companionships together and move people around in the mission. They stay in that room until late afternoon when the job is done. Then they close the board and lock it so nobody knows what changes are being made until the following week at the transfer meetings.                                  

Car Czar & Referral Queen Spencer from Denver
Elder Williams takes care of 100+ apartments
On transfer week the missionaries going home all come to San Antonio on Monday for their last two days in the mission. On Tuesday they have a final meeting in the morning and office missionaries provide a luncheon. Then they go to the San Antonio Temple, followed by a formal dinner at the mission home---provided by the office missionaries. Early Wednesday morning the outgoing missionaries travel to the airport and catch an early morning flight home. By late morning the arriving missionaries are picked up at the airport and taken to the mission office to get some things they need for the mission and have lunch. From there they visit the Alamo and end up at the Mission Home for a dinner and discussion with the Mission President. The days are long for everyone. On Thursday the new missionaries meet their first companion and other missionaries learn where they will be transferred to.

Sister Greenwood smiles at the transfer board as she will be going home in a few days
Elders Calley and Hilario discuss a referral given to Sister Spencer
There are two transfer meetings to get all of this done. The first is at 8 a.m. in San Antonio for those in the southern half of the mission, which goes all the way to the border of Mexico. At 2 p.m. there is a second meeting for those in the northern half of the mission in Austin. There is lots of excitement at both of these meetings and tons of energy afterwards as companionships pick up their mail that has come in over the last few weeks, get their bikes if they are going to a bike area, say goodbye to their old companion and make their way out of the parking lot which looks like a Toyota dealership that is giving a free bike rack with every car they sell.
The next 5 weeks will be pretty routine. My job was to manage all of the 100+ apartments that house the missionaries and to pay all the bills associated with housing including utilities. I also worked with the ‘moving Elders’ who move furniture around as we open and close apartments which is a constant process because wards divide and stake boundaries get changed and this changes the areas where the missionaries work so they have to relocate.
76 of our 200+ missionaries are Spanish Speaking and a few are Sign Language missionaries to the deaf community

Eileen was the “face” of the office. She answered the phone, greeted everyone that came in, sent welcome letters out to incoming missionaries, arranged flight plans for those coming in or going home, prepared the picture cards for the transfer board, etc. Her computer skills improved a lot over the short time we were in the office.

We worked in the office for just 5 weeks. Long enough to see how it worked and how important those who work in the office are to the smooth operation of the mission, which has lots of moving parts. But now we are in Austin working with refugees and immigrants from Africa and other areas.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Mission Reassignment Possibilities

Eagle Pass, San Antonio Food Bank and Haven for Hope

When we first thought about a possible reassignment to the Texas San Antonio Mission we met with Mission President James Slaughter to see what his thoughts were and what might be some possibilities for us. He mentioned an assignment in Eagle Pass, right on the Mexico border as a possibility. He mentioned a new program called “Just Serve” which someone described to us as “” for volunteers. He also mentioned the San Antonio Food Bank as a possible assignment---either the food bank itself or their soup kitchen called Haven for Hope. We decided to check the possibilities out.

That Sunday we drove 3 hours to the border and attended Eagle Pass Branch 1 which is English speaking. It was an interesting branch and Eagle Pass is an interesting community. The old part of the town is a combination “Small town America” and Mexico with tiendas and tacuerias. The oil boom in that area of Texas has stimulated growth there so there is a new part of town with new stucco houses and developments everywhere. We met the branch president who would have loved to have us serving there.

Eagle Pass is right on the border of Mexico

One of two bridges to Mexico                                     Sign welcoming visitors to Eagle Pass

Then we visited the S.A. Food Bank and we were amazed with the size of the operation and how much the 108 employees there loved their jobs. We met with the CEO who happens to be LDS and trying to get a senior couple there for some time. He was a very impressive guy and before we left we agreed to give it a try. He set us up with food bank t-shirts and had a schedule for the following week- 4 days at the food bank and 1 day at Haven for Hope.

San Antonio Food Bank feeds 58,000 people
a week in 16 south Texas counties
 The S.A. Foodbank depends on thousands of volunteers and only 108 employees to grow, sort, ship and prepare food for hundreds of distribution sites throughout southern Texas.

Thousands of pounds of vegetables are produce in this 27 acre garden
                                          These vegetables will go to school kids & families
        Hundreds of volunteers labor in the hot Texas sun to produce tons of fresh vegetables

The energy conscious food bank uses solar panels on it's warehouse roof for cooling and recycled water along with drip irrigation to grow crops in their 27 acre garden.    

Our first day at the food bank we worked with about 60 other volunteers in the warehouse doing what they call “dry sort” where they had huge pallets loaded with all kinds of miscellaneous food donations from all over San Antonio---about 9 tons worth. Some were in cases like canned fruit, soup, etc. But most was just in cans, bottles and boxes to be sorted for expiration date, nutritional information, bulging cans or damaged bottles. Every food item was re-boxed in banana boxes and put on a pallet according to what it was---snack food, cereal, protein, even pet food. The second day we sorted orders from the hundreds of food sites and organized and filed them for tax purposes since the food bank is a non-profit organization.

Each week the donations are brought into the warehouse where volunteers will sort several tons of food and check for damage, expiration dates, etc. In 3 hours these folks will sort about 18,000 pounds of food that will yield 14,000 meals.

            Sorted food goes to the warehouse and from there to trucks. The
            trucks take the food to distribution sites that serve 58,000 people

Other days we worked in the “kids kitchen” making 4,500 lunches for school kids in summer feeding programs. Each day was a different meal. One day was mac and cheese with fruit cocktail. Another day was roast beef sandwiches made from high end sliced beef that had been damaged in the packaging process. Everything had to be very sanitary and portion controlled. We worked alongside young people who were training to get jobs in the food service industry.

The Kids Cafe prepared over 1,000,000 meals for kids at summer feeding programs all over south Texas


Volunteers assemble 4,000 to 5,000 meals each day which are very healthy. Meals are heat sealed and shipped to kids each day.

                       Prison Trustees learn culinary skills, warehouse management
                       and other skills as well as how to interview & write a resume.

The most enjoyable but most difficult though was working at Haven for Hope; a soup kitchen on the south side of San Antonio. Haven serves 3 meals per day, 365 days a year for 500 or more people who are homeless, in the onsite detox center, in the family housing units, or are just plain hungry.  

Haven for Hope is a huge complex that provides shelter for homeless families, training & rehab for prisoners, treatment for addicts, and meals for 500+ people three times a day. Served by volunteers
You see every kind of person there; families with small children that are just down on their luck; people who are mentally ill; drug or alcohol addicted; cross dressers; ex-convicts in education or job training programs provided at Haven, etc. It was very gratifying to serve those folks, many of whom would say, “God bless you for your service” or “Thank you for your service.” One young father with a wife and two children saw our black nametags and said, “Please pray for our family.”
Another young man asked us to talk with him after we finished and we gave him a Book of Mormon and phone number of the missionaries working in South San Antonio. Everyone should have an experience like volunteering at Haven. It’s good for the soul!

 This homeless lady was fun to talk to. She wore this heavy coat all day every day even though the temperature might have been over 100 degrees in San Antonio.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

My Recovery from Heart Attack

MAY 15 – Making my way back

                       My arrival at Mil Park Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa.
    The man on the left is the flight doctor. Right is the nurse who tortured me for hours.

      I think it was the night I came home from the hospital for the second time after the infection that I was sleeping in a recliner in the living room at the Barton’s flat where we were staying. It was far too difficult for me to lie in a bed because my whole upper body hurt from having my sternum cut open and my ribs spread apart. When I turned in the bed I could feel my ribcage being pushed out of shape so it felt lopsided. I would simply push things back into shape but the muscle pain, though not excruciating, was always with me and my torso was still bruised from the surgery. I had wanted so badly for a miracle so we could go back to Gulu. I had prayed intensely for a miracle so that might happen but it was increasingly evident this was not the kind of ailment that goes away in a day or two.
                                 A world class surgical team performed my surgery

                            They cut through my sternum and used a spreader to access my heart

      I was thankful just to be alive, but I didn’t want to go home. I was feeling depressed and sorry for myself. In some ways I felt like a failure for leaving the mission after less than two full months when we had made an 18 month commitment and were feeling such success. I never served a mission as a young Elder but have looked forward to serving as a senior missionary for at least 20 years. Uganda was the perfect mission for Eileen and I and I didn’t want it to end this way or so soon. Then suddenly, in the middle of my pity party I felt a strange sensation of warmth come flooding over me until it covered my whole being. I started to cry. I couldn’t help it. I tried to stop but I couldn’t because I felt completely reassured at that moment that everything that was happening to me was no accident. It was all by design and was all part of a greater plan that I didn’t know about or understand. I began to understand that there is another plan for our mission and it’s not our plan. But whatever the plan is it will play out on the Lord’s time table. My job, for the next weeks and months was to be patient, work on recovering as fast as possible, and accept whatever is in store for us as what the Lord really intended for us all along. So that is what I decided to do—wait and work toward recovery.

                          A stint wouldn't work so a vein from my leg got my ticker workin' again.
                 Super glue instead of stitches left a nice neat scar like this one

      The next 5 weeks or so were very difficult. I was sent home from South Africa to the U.S. with a catheter in place because after my night of torture with Ugly Nurse my bladder was distended and couldn’t send signals to my brain when it was time to urinate. Long story short, I couldn’t pee. The urologist at Milpark Hospital wanted to operate. Dr. Chabra, who is a urologist, encouraged me to hold off and let the bladder regain its normal shape in a few weeks so it would start working normally again. That sounded much better to me so that’s what I did. It took two weeks for me to get in to see a urologist but when I told him my story he said, “Here is what we will do. We’ll try an experiment and see if things are working. My nurse is going to back flush sterile water into your bladder until it’s full. Then we’ll see if anything comes out.” He left and the nurse injected water back up into my bladder through the catheter tube. When I couldn’t stand the pain any more she pulled the tube out, gave me a cup to catch anything coming out and left the room for a few minutes. When she returned she said, “I put in 130 cc’s. Now I’ll go measure what is in the cup but it looks like 135 cc’s.” She goes out and 5 minutes later the doc comes in and just says, “Congratulations. Everything seems to be working properly.” He shakes my hand and sends us home. Thank you Dr. Chabra!!

 I took my physical therapy in this building and from the picture windows on the top floor I had beautiful views of San Antonio.

     It took much longer to get in to a cardiologist. I was gaining some strength but was still sleeping a lot and the pain in my chest and upper back were always there. I didn’t want to be around the family much. I moved slow and seldom smiled or joked. I just was not myself. I have never experienced anything like this and was slowly becoming depressed. When I finally did get in to see my cardiologist, Dr. Mancuso, I was really happy when he said, “My goal is to get you to a point where you can do anything you want to without fear of having another heart attack.” And I said to myself, “I’m going to do everything I can to help you achieve that goal!” I started working on that the same day by taking a slow walk on David’s treadmill for 30 minutes. The machine was set on the slowest speed of 2 miles per hour, but that was all I could do.
After finishing P.T. I started working out at this Health Link gym.
      A few days later I started physical therapy (P.T.). People say that PT stands for Pain and Torture. I said that too when recovering from shoulder surgery several years ago. The pain was excruciating but this was different. I was sore. The wounds from my drains were still healing and pretty raw. It was an ugly sight to look in the mirror. I had shooting pains in my pectoral muscles and spasms in my upper back muscles. The PT who did my assessment gave me a bunch of physical tests and then told me he wanted me to start walking every day for 30 minutes but not to worry about speed or distance. So I started walking. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 2:00 o’clock I was with my regular PT, Careese Ngyuin who gave me a set of exercises every day that was challenging. I worked hard every day and sweat like a mule. The first two weeks was all leg work and nothing that would put stress on my heart, but that changed after two weeks and she started working my arms and legs and finally mostly upper body work. Some of the exercises were grueling, like sitting on a stool with wheels and using my legs to claw myself 3 times around the therapy room and by the end 4 times. I hated that. It was so exhausting but I never quit. I just wanted to get better.
      Every day I worked hard and was dripping sweat but the improvement was there after every session. I really looked forward to going to therapy and I felt so bad for other folks who had strokes or young kids with musculoskeletal problems. They didn’t seem to improve like I was. But I just stayed focused on one thing which was to return to the mission field in some way. A good friend asked me it is was really physical therapy or therapeutic recreation. I had to think about that because I really enjoyed going to therapy. I looked forward to it because I knew it was helping. Certain exercises were painful or boring but boxing was great fun even though my shoulders hurt after just a 30 second round. Careese would pair me up with a mail intern who would hold these target things that I would punch away at. I don’t think it was much fun for them because eventually I could punch pretty hard. It was definitely recreation. Plus the people there were very friendly and the atmosphere was informal and non-clinical feeling unlike the PT I got at Milpark Hospital. The PT gym was on the 4th floor of the building with huge windows all the way around. When I was on the bike or the arm bike I could look out and see the San Antonio Temple in the distance and think about what my goal was.

     After a few weeks it was no longer painful just to get out of bed and I could sleep on my side, not just on my back. It became less painful to sit in church. The chapel benches and metal folding chairs were murder on my upper back and when the pain got to a certain level I’d have to lean forward with elbows on knees and head in my hands. But that got better a little each week. It was funny how certain types of seating could be really painful but others could be very comfortable. I always looked for a chair that would give me lots of back support and allow me to recline just slightly.

      Little by little I could feel myself getting better. Each new day was just slightly better than the last but it was enough that I could tell the difference, especially after a therapy day.

      Finally it was the middle of June and I don’t know what happened but one day I turned a corner and started feeling like my old self. The beginning was one afternoon when David and Eileen were working on a huge new flower bed in the back yard. It was a hot day and it looked like a lot of work. But for some reason I just went and started to help expecting that I could last about 15 minutes. But oddly it felt good to be doing something useful even though I hate gardening. I stayed with it until they were ready to quit for the day. And I didn’t feel physically drained when we were finished. The next day, while David was at work, Eileen and I laid down weed barrier over the whole thing and staked it down. I was feeling much better and wanting to do more. It was amazing! It had been so long since I felt really alive and I wondered how long this recovery would take. Nobody told me anything about what to expect as far as recovery. But now I knew I was really getting well. I started thinking that before long maybe I could go back on a mission.

 When I first went to the gym to work out I could only use the 8 pound dumbbells but slowly worked up to 10, then 12, then 15 pounders. 

      July 4th was a good day for me. Didn’t do much but that night I was eager to help the kids light off their fireworks. I was feeling almost normal but still very cautious not to get too rambunctious. I was making great progress in physical therapy and a few days later I had an echocardiogram. I looked at the machine but could tell nothing from the jagged green line on the screen and when I asked the technician how it looked she just said, “The doctor will go over all of that with you.” It was almost two weeks before I saw him and I just had to wait.

       When the cardiology appointment finally came the doctor asked me a few questions. He didn’t really explain to me the results of the echocardiogram. I couldn’t tell if he thought I was doing well or not. He just said matter of factly, “I’d like to see you again in October.”
“October I thought! I want my life back NOW!!” I tried to explain that we are missionaries and that I feel pretty good and we would like to get back out into the field as soon as possible. He just said, “Okay, I’ll see you in October.” I was bummed when I walked into physical therapy that day.

Dr. Mancuso, my cardiologist.
      A while before this President James E. Slaughter of the Texas San Antonio Mission had contacted the Bishop of the ward we are attending to see if we would be interested in working in the Mission Office for a year. The Bishop told us he had called but we were not excited at all about working in the office so we never followed up. But after that cardiology appointment we realized things were not moving as fast as we would have liked so we set up an appointment with President Slaughter to see what he had in mind. We called him and left a message.

Eileen introduces a friend to Mission President Slaughter and his wife at Sister's Conference
       To our surprise he showed up at our ward and we met with him after church. We talked about possible ways we could serve in the Texas San Antonio Mission or the T-Sam as we call it. Two things that sounded attractive to us was an assignment on the Mexican border in Eagle Pass. Years ago in Michigan I volunteered during the summer with migrant workers from there and I have always been curious about where they came from. The other was the San Antonio Food Bank which serves 58,000 people from 16 counties in South Texas. We visited Eagle pass but decided to give the food bank a try. A few weeks later we visited the place and signed up to volunteer. We had a long ways to go but were on our way back to being full time missionaries.