Dr. Carolyn Stickney: A short-term physician with a long-term commitment

In the fall of 2003, Carolyn Stickney was a fourth-year medical student at Case Western Reserve University with lots of free space in her academic schedule.

When thinking about how to fill that elective time, Dr. Stickney remembered encouragement she received from a classmate at Williams College, her alma mater. Her friend, who had spent a summer in Nairobi, recommended that she visit Kijabe Hospital during her training. But when Dr. Stickney began to explore that possibility, she quickly encountered a critical obstacle: there was no obvious application process for interested students.

In her online search, though, Dr. Stickney discovered another option. “I had stumbled upon Tenwek, and they did have a website,” Dr. Stickney said. “In fact, on the front page, in the upper right-hand corner, it said, ‘Click here if you are a medical student interested in doing an away rotation.’ I thought, ‘Well, I can do that.’”

Eighteen years and twelve trips to Kenya later, Dr. Stickney is a pediatric critical care physician at Boston Children’s Hospital who has made it a priority to return to Tenwek for a month each year.

Many things about Tenwek resonated with Dr. Stickney the first time she visited: the resourcefulness of its physicians, the physical needs of its patients, and the collegiality of the hospital staff, to name a few. But perhaps most importantly, Dr. Stickney realized that she could do what the Tenwek physicians were doing.

She realized she could do mission work.

A new view of medical missions

“One of the real keys for me during my first trip to Tenwek was realizing that medical missionaries were not a special class of people — that they were not more saintly or less sinful than other Christians,” Dr. Stickney said. “That changed how I thought about medical missions a lot. I thought, all right, we are all sinful, broken people. The people who are doing this just have a special call on their lives.”

Dr. Stickney carried that truth with her through the remainder of her medical training. She returned to Tenwek three times during her Internal Medicine-Pediatrics residency at Case Western, including once during her fifth year as a chief resident. When she matched into a pediatric critical care fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital, she realized that she wouldn’t be able to visit Tenwek during the ensuing three years because of the clinical demands of her role.

So, before she accepted a full-time position, she knew that one thing was nonnegotiable.

“I was only going to take a job if I could commit to being able to travel as part of it,” Dr. Stickney said. “When I accepted my job, one of the things I said to my boss was, ‘It’s really important to me to be able to commit a month out of the year to go to this hospital in Kenya.’ I expected him to say, ‘Well, we’re going to need to talk about that.’ Instead, he was really enthusiastic.”

As Dr. Stickney has returned to Tenwek during different points of her personal and professional lives, her motivations and perspectives have evolved.

“What’s been interesting for me is to have these defined, intermittent time points when I’m going back to Tenwek and feel like I’m operating in a different capacity than before or feel like I have something very different to offer,” she said. “It’s been interesting to watch my professional maturation referenced to my experiences at Tenwek.”

During her first few visits, Dr. Stickney was mostly learning.

“It was an amazing opportunity to get to see and engage in a very different side of medicine,” she said. “The people I got to work with were wonderful, caring individuals. I loved the people.”

Sharing medical knowledge and practicing faith

Now, the opportunity to return the favor is what draws Dr. Stickney back to Tenwek. Over the past few years, she’s cherished her role as a teacher and preceptor for Kenyan interns, residents, and medical officers.

“Those learners are now the main focus of why I’m there, because what I have to offer them is more useful than what I have to offer any individual patient,” Dr. Stickney said. “I love the patients, and I love interacting with them, but I also recognize that my learners are far better equipped to interact with the patients and to talk to them about Jesus than I am, if for no other reason than the fact that there is a language barrier for me most of the time.”

Beyond medical education, Dr. Stickney also appreciates the opportunity to guide learners through difficult situations.

“In pediatrics, one of the toughest things that trainees have to deal with is watching children die,” Dr. Stickney said. “At Tenwek, children die not infrequently, and to be able to navigate the challenges of that with the lens of faith, and to understand how a God who is loving would allow these sorts of things to happen is critical. Being able to have those conversations with them and hopefully deepen their faith feels very meaningful.”

When thinking about this tragic reality of pediatrics in resource-limited settings, Dr. Stickney reflected on an intern she worked with years ago — one who had never experienced a child’s death.

In their first weekend together, three of their patients passed away.

“I remember crying with her and thinking, ‘This is terrible, and this is a reason for grief, but we trust that God is good in spite of these things,” Dr. Stickney said. “’He asks us to grieve in these terrible situations, but we are still called to do what we can to treat and to heal, to love our patients and their families, and to walk with them through challenging times.’”

In the same way that Dr. Stickney has changed over the course of her twelve visits to Tenwek, she’s seen how the hospital has simultaneously evolved.

“The physical layout of the hospital is night and day,” she said. “If you had told me back in 2004 about the things that we’re able to do now, I would’ve thought, ‘No. Really?’”

To her, that growth is especially evident in the quality of the staffing and resourcing — for example, the presence of a respiratory therapist with a reliable supply of ventilators.

Medical education and Christ-centered care

“The caliber of nursing in the hospital has really increased,” Dr. Stickney said. “The ability to be able to care for complex patients has expanded tremendously. For example, there’s an ability to care for critically ill neonates that’s more consistent and developed than we were able to do before.”

Yet, in spite of all that’s changed, she’s noticed that core tenets remain the same — priorities like the development of Kenyan medical professionals.

“The hospital’s commitment to training Kenyans has really become a cornerstone of Tenwek’s mission, because they have the resources to do that,” Dr. Stickney said. “Tenwek has continued an outstanding standard in medical education in parallel with an ongoing commitment to Christ-centered care. Every time I come back, that seems the same.”

Also consistent over Dr. Stickney’s years of experience in Tenwek has been the holistic approach to medicine.

“It has felt very vocationally coherent to me to care for patients’ bodies and souls at the same time,” she said. “If I’m a doctor and my mission is to provide care, my goal isn’t simply to heal your physical body. I want you to experience wholeness and new life as a person and that involves knowing Jesus. To be able to do that at Tenwek in a really intentional way really resonates with me.”

Nearly two decades after she discovered that link in the upper-right corner of the website of Tenwek Hospital, Dr. Stickney remains committed as ever.

“I feel very called to making a long-term commitment to being a short-term person, to being a part of what Tenwek does, and to supporting the people who are there long-term, either by my presence or by offering my expertise from afar,” she said. “I don’t really think of myself as a missionary, even now. I just think of myself as doing what I think God has asked me to do at this time in my life.”