Fred and Lydia Pfenniger explain what they will be doing as part of a two-year medical mission to Togo, Africa. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
Fred and Lydia Pfenniger explain what they will be doing as part of a two-year medical mission to Togo, Africa. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
Fred and Lydia Pfenniger wanted to heal people's physical ailments when they chose careers in the medical field. They also hope to touch spiritual lives as well by serving as medical missionaries.

Both family practice physicians served separately as short-term medical missionaries throughout their medical trainings in countries around the world. The couple will begin medical missions together to Togo, Africa, next year.

The Pfennigers will begin working with the Samaritan's Purse World Medical Missions Post-Residency program in January with six months of French language training in Switzerland before they move to Togo, Africa, for a two-year medical ministry at the Karolyn Kempton Memorial Christian Hospital.

"For me, this had been a long time coming," Lydia, a 1996 graduate of Southwestern High School, said of the mission. "It's very much a blessing to be part of it."

The daughter of missionaries, Lydia spent five years with her parents in the Philippines before moving to Indiana. Lydia served on medical missions to Honduras and Bolivia, as well as Zambia and Togo, during her medical training.

Fred, raised in British Columbia, Canada, also served on medical missions to Ghana and Togo during his medical training. Both saw the needs of other countries and began looking into longer-term missions after their residency programs.

Instead of setting up family practices, the couple plans to begin a two-year journey serving the people of Togo. Both doctors served at the missions hospital in Togo before and knew that the need for medical professionals there was large.

Yet medical missions isn't often part of a family practitioner's natural progression in the medical field.

"It seems like a backwards step," Fred said.

Just when most married couples begin to consider buying a home and beginning a family life, the Pfennigers rid their lives of most of their personal possessions in preparation for their journey to Togo.

"We boiled our lives down to 40 banana boxes," Lydia said.

Both doctors found out they had been accepted to the Samaritan's Purse World Medical Missions Post-Residency program about a year ago. As medical missionaries with the program, doctors receive placement at a missions hospital for two years. The medical missionaries receive a stipend, as well as other trainings, for their work in Togo. Yet the couple also has to raise funds through donations and supporters while serving in the missions field.

"It's like an apprenticeship almost," Fred said.

Overseas medical missionaries aren't very common, the Pfennigers said. Most physicians choose to open or begin practicing with a family physician after their schooling is complete, and many physicians that once served in medical missions during their training fail to return to the field after setting up their own practice.

"Once you establish yourself (in the United States), it's harder to leave," Fred said.

Unlike the other missions the couple experienced before getting married, this mission to Togo will be much longer - and they will be taking their 7-month-old son, Noah.

"The longest I've been is six weeks," Lydia said of her personal mission work during medical school. "It's one thing when you're going over (by yourself) and when you're taking your child."

Noah will turn one year old before the family moves to Togo, and all of his immunization shots should be completed by then to help fend off diseases.

The Pfennigers hope that spending a few years in the missions field may help to shape their son's perception of the world as he grows.

"It's exciting ... (but) you wonder if you're doing the right thing," Fred said of the trip. "It is kind of scary."

After being accepted to the program, the Pfennigers chose to be placed at a location where both had worked previously. Both Fred and Lydia are familiar with the compound where they will live, as well as the hospital where they will serve for two years.

"The other thing we like about Togo is we aren't by ourselves," Lydia said.

Unlike other missions where missionary doctors staff the entire hospital with help of short-term doctors, the hospital in Togo has a long-term family doctor, a physician's assistant and a pediatrician. The Pfennigers will add to the medical staff at the hospital, while also working their skills from the doctors that have practiced at the hospital for years.

"Togo seemed like a perfect kind of set up," Lydia said.

The set-up isn't like hospitals in the United States. The hospital is a 40-bed facility that serves over 500,000 people with a few doctors and about 80 nurses trained at the medical school on the compound.

The two doctors won't have a specific specialty during their time in Togo either. They could potentially treat anything from a bacterial infection to broken bones or surgery in the same day.

"We'll see the gamut," Fred said.

While AIDS doesn't seem to be as large an issue in Togo as in other nations throughout Africa, several other medical issues that aren't as prevalent in the United States will need to be treated.

"Malaria is pretty huge," Lydia said.

Even though the two doctors know going in that they won't be able to save every patient that comes to the missions hospital, they plan to share the Christian faith - as well as their medical expertise - with the people of Togo during their time in the country.

"The goal is Christian ministry," Fred said.

As with most mission work, the Pfennigers expect to meet a few native people accustomed to old traditions, and who are unwilling listen to their message. Yet some patients may want to be healed physically and spiritually.

"They will come for days or hours away," Fred said of patients. "You're not saving them all, but you are making a difference."