Apartheid ended; the need didn't

Missionary continues medical and school ministries in South Africa
January 14, 2010

Some ministries prove irresistible.

Nearly three decades ago, Dr. Chris McConnachie began taking breaks from his private orthopedic practice in Hendersonville, North Carolina, for short mission trips to an impoverished area of South Africa.

"Then in 1981, we went out for a three-month session with our children," recalled his wife, Jenny. "About a year later, Chris took a sabbatical for a year [to South Africa]. I think it was just during that year we really decided we had to get on or get off … Chris realized that he couldn't really make much of a difference in just short trips."

To set up an orthopedic hospital, they'd have to relocate more permanently, they decided. Supported by St. James Episcopal Church in Hendersonville, Chris McConnachie sold his practice, and the family headed across the Atlantic for a five-year trial.

After five years, Chris and Jenny looked at each other and asked: "Do you want to go back?" Their answer: "Nope, not really."

Through the years, Chris McConnachie saw his efforts grow from working in a poor mission hospital in a "homeland" – a designated tribal area during apartheid – to the government-supported 200-bed Bedford Orthopedic Hospital in the new South Africa. His wife, a nurse, launched a medical clinic for people living on the local dump, a program that now includes a preschool, feeding program, afterschool program and HIV services. Following her husband's death from leukemia in November 2007, she remains in South Africa, continuing the work of the ministry they established, African Medical Mission.

The McConnachies moved with their five children, ages 8 to 17, to what during apartheid was called the Transkei homeland. "It was pretty undersourced and underdeveloped at that time," Jenny McConnachie recalled in 2009 during one of her regular fundraising visits to the United States. "It's still referred to as one of the previously disadvantaged areas of South Africa."

They worried about the effect of not educating the children in the United States but, McConnachie said, "It all seemed to work out."

The couple also adopted two African boys while living in the Transkei.

For a long time, Chris McConnachie was the only board-certified orthopedist serving about 4 million people, his wife said. "Gradually, with a lot of help and donations, he was able to develop a hospital, and it grew and improved a lot while he was in charge. He had a stroke of great good fortune in that one of [former President Nelson] Mandela's granddaughters was a patient in the hospital, so he came to visit and saw that a lot was needed. So Chris was able to meet him. Soon after that, Mandela put a lot of effort into getting funding for a new operating theater and a new outpatient department."

Meanwhile, Jenny McConnachie met a Scottish woman, Liz Scott, who had started a program for preschoolers in the Itipini squatter camp that had grown up on the local garbage dump. McConnachie helped start the clinic to meet the community's medical needs. When Scott returned to Scotland, she continued working on the Itipini Community Project.

"That was about 15 years ago now," she said. Gradually, the program grew to encompass the primary health-care clinic – including programs for HIV patients – a preschool with 60 children, an afterschool program with 70 youngsters and a feeding program. The project also supports about 121 children so they can attend school, supplying things such as school uniforms.

The clinic sees about 40 patients a day; a well-baby clinic serves 70 weekly. Medical services include HIV counseling and testing. HIV-positive patients are placed on a regimen of vitamins, fortified milk and extra food to supplement their treatment with medications.

Project supporters include foundations and a trust from a South African mining company as well as churches. The McConnachies worked as Episcopal Church missionaries – although at age 68 Jenny had to "retire" as an appointed missionary and become a volunteer for mission. Richard Hogue, the latest Young Adult Service Corps volunteer to serve at the mission, arrived recently. Various congregations provide funds. And, from the beginning, the McConnachies' home church of St. James supported the mission. An independent board oversees the mission's work.

"At least six of our board members are members of St. James, and then others are members of other Episcopal churches within the Diocese of Western North Carolina," said Barbara Seiler, member of the mission board and St. James. Besides raising funds, she said, "our group also tries to funnel physical therapists into Bedford Hospital from the United States to go work for a period of time, because there's a real need. As Chris said, orthopedic surgery's great. But if you don't have the physical therapy afterwards, there's not much point."

Faith as well as funding helps sustain the ministry.

"I don't think I could do it without my faith," McConnachie said. "I'm not much for preaching or anything like that, but I feel if I can just try to live out my faith by example as far as I can, that's really what I would like to do. There's still a lot of need and a long way to go, but I feel hopeful that things will continue to improve and just so grateful for all of the help we continue to get."

"I love being out there," she concluded. "I had no hesitation after Chris died. I had no feeling I wanted to move or change. I really love what I'm doing. It's been a help to have something to do that I believe in and want to do."