Guided by faith
MIFFLINTOWN – Members of one local family serving as missionaries overseas have experienced peace amid a tragedy.
They keep moving forward just as it says in Philippians 3:14: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Dr. Aaron Kelley and his wife, Stephanie, originally from Mifflintown, have been missionaries at Tenwek Hospital in Kenya since Feb. 1, 2013.
Last year, while still in the African city, they faced the unthinkable when their youngest child, Hannah, passed away suddenly due to a brain tumor at the age of 14 months.
Aaron currently works in what is known as “casualty,” or the emergency room of the hospital. He is director of the internship program. Stephanie, Aaron said, keeps her focus at home with their children by homeschooling them and teaching math to other missionary children.
Their work is God-centered and their hearts have been focused on missions for many years, Aaron said.
The couple first went on a missions trip to the Dominican Republic when Stephanie was a senior in high school and Aaron was a sophomore in college.
“From that point on we have had a heart for overseas missions. Seeing ‘the least of these’ first hand changed our perspective instantly. More trips followed, including a voyage to Honduras as part of a medical team and later to Jamaica with another medical team.
“Each of these experiences strengthened our calling to the mission field,” Aaron said.
During the first few months of Aaron’s fellowship training, he received an email from Samaritan’s Purse, a mission organization.
“We looked into it and found that it was a great way to transition into a career in medical missions. They provide a great deal of support and guidance as we learn what it means to be missionaries in the field. They also help with the process of transitioning to a career mission agency,” he said.
After some interviews, it was discovered the best place for Aaron to use his expertise in emergency medicine was Tenwek Hospital in Kenya.
The couple took their family, including their four children – Noah, Jacob, Levi and Hannah – to Kenya in 2013.
“About four weeks after arriving, we all came down with a stomach bug, which was really not unexpected at all,” Aaron said.
“We all bounced back quickly, but Hannah remained ill. For the next week and a half she didn’t really seem too bad. She would vomit once a day, but otherwise she was her normal, playful, happy self,” he recalled.
The family did not grow overly concerned at first, Aaron said.
“Then her vomiting became more persistent. We took her to the hospital and did some basic blood work, which was all fine. We started her on antibiotics and a reflux medicine presumptively,” Aaron recalled, adding the medical team gave Hannah a feeding tube to keep her hydrated.
The toddler was sent home and Aaron said he stayed up through the night with her.
“That night I knew something was wrong, as she would wake up screaming in pain every hour or so. She would vomit and then go back to sleep,” he said.
Aaron now believes the pressure on her head from the brain tumor likely caused the pain and vomiting. He said young Hannah also pulled the feeding tube out in frustration.
The next day she returned to the hospital to test for gastric issues. All tests were normal, and she had another feeding tube placed.
“Throughout all of this time,” Aaron said, “both myself and the pediatrician were performing regular exams on her. Neither one of us found anything wrong. She had even had a normal one-year physical just days before we left for Kenya.”
The second night, Stephanie slept beside Hannah in the living room. At 2 a.m., Stephanie woke her husband frantically. She was afraid their daughter had stopped breathing.
“I ran out and found that she had no pulse and was not breathing. I began resuscitating her on the couch, and Steph called for additional people to begin praying and to come help me,” he recalled.
The pediatrician arrived first, Aaron said, as well as a mentor couple through the missionary program. Together, three doctors, including Aaron, worked to carry Hannah to the casualty part of the hospital located on a hill, resuscitating her as they walked.
“I honestly do not know how long we were in casualty before others arrived to help,” he recalled. “The phone system was not working so it seemed like forever. After someone else tried to intubate her a couple times and failed, I had no choice but to intubate my baby girl.”
Aaron said he prayed briefly, then made the attempt to insert the ventilation tube into Hannah’s trachea. The attempt was successful.
Hannah then began having mild seizures and continued to code. She was surrounded by six physicians at this point.
Stephanie and wives of other doctors stayed huddled together in prayer. Eventually, Aaron asked his wife to come to the Intensive Care Unit where their daughter now lay. It was evident she was not going to make it much longer.
“At one point when the seizures continued, we discussed the possibility of a brain tumor as the cause of her symptoms,” Aaron said.
A CT scan was performed and the image on the screen brought Aaron to tears.
“I was waiting in the control room and as soon as the scan began, I knew … from my place sitting on the floor, I saw that Hannah did in fact have a brain tumor. I went in to the scanner and wept the hardest I had up to that point,” he said.
Hannah was transferred two and a half hours away to have surgery performed by a well-known pediatric neurosurgeon. Though the surgery went smoothly, Aaron said, Hannah had developed a terrible fever.
The couple sat with their daughter for hours. Aaron sent Stephanie back to an apartment to rest. Aaron remained by his daughter’s side, talking to her, praying over her. He played music from his phone for her.
“I tried my best to memorize everything about her, knowing I only had hours left,” the father recalled.
Before long, surgeons were telling Aaron his daughter was showing signs of brain death. Aaron sought his wife and told her it was time to let their daughter “go home.”
“We had them remove her breathing tube and we crawled up beside her in her bed and prayed over her,” he said.
As the couple prayed, the song “King Jesus,” by Jeremy Camp, began to play softly in the background.
Aaron said that as the chorus rang out the words “King Jesus, you are victorious. You have conquered death with this life of love. King Jesus you are victorious. You paid the final debt for all of us,” Aaron and Stephanie watched their 14-month-old baby girl take her final breath.
Aaron then began to pray aloud and, as he prayed, Stephanie recalled she could see in her mind the vision of Hannah “fully healed and looking back at us, smiling the largest smile … running into the arms of Jesus.”
Such a tragedy so far from what they know as home might lead some people to run back to that home.
The Kelleys were not going to return to Juniata County anytime soon.
“As we stood in Tenwek’s ICU, Steph and I decided this event was not going to prevent us from returning to Kenya,” Aaron said. “I think we both knew that our calling to Kenya was not dependent on everything going right. God’s work here is far bigger than anything that could happen to our family. We committed to each other at that point to return and continue the work to which we were called.”
And yet, there is peace, he said.
” … We both had a painful peace about it. I can’t even begin to explain how we could have peace about such a thing, but we did. But it still hurt to realize what was happening,” he said.
The family is expected to return home to the United States in spring 2015.
“We are in the process of applying to World Gospel Mission (the organization that runs Tenwek). It is our hope that we can return to Tenwek after one year in the states,” Aaron said.
During that year in the U.S., the couple will take part in further training and raise support.
Their faith and their peace is not a “success,” Aaron said, but rather a light.
“Our primary goal here is to be a light for Christ … both to the people here in Kenya as well as to anyone who may happen to read our blogs or follow our work here.”
Before leaving for Kenya in early 2013, they prayed to be that light.
“In the months leading up to our departure, we would pray every night that God would help us be the best missionaries we could be,” Aaron said. “We would also pray we would reach lots of people for Jesus.”
Aaron said God has faithfully allowed the family to have such a platform.
“Hannah gave us that platform. She has by far been the best missionary out of all of us,” he said.
Aaron Kelley’s online blog can be viewed at www.aaroninkenya.com. Stephanie Kelley also writes a blog, which can be viewed at mrskelleyinkenya.wordpress.com.