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I pulled the sleeves of my sweater down around my hands and jammed them into the pockets of my jeans. Through the window it looked like spring, but stepping outside, I remembered that we’re well entrenched in winter here in Zhytomyr.
Dr. Olexandra Bashek glanced at me, concerned, and asked the interpreter a question in Ukrainian. “Will you be okay out here? Dr. Olexandra is worried you’ll be cold.” Nah, I’m tough. We stepped into the gazebo that sits on the back lawn of the MTU offices and I pulled out my list of questions. Dr. Bashek didn’t wait for me to ask anything, though; she just jumped right in to telling me her story.
“I grew up in the area far from Zhytomyr in the southern part of Ukraine, in the Odessa region. All that time throughout my childhood and into my adult years, I had this love for kids. I was always around kids. So I always thought I would either go into education or into pediatrics.
“My mom was sick very often and she always told me that I shouldn’t become a doctor because I would only see a lot of pain and tears and hurt. My mom prayed to God that I wouldn’t be accepted to the university to study medicine.”
Dr. Bashek shot me that knowing sort of smile, and it got me to thinking. I mentor a handful of girls and I myself give advice on what I think would be best for them. What a pressing responsibility it is to be listening to the Lord as much for what advice I give others as I would in listening for His leading in my own life. I wonder how much advice I’ve given that was out of fear rather than out of a desire for the people I love to thrive in God’s will…
Dr. Bashek continued, “When it came time for me to graduate from medical school, the dean of the department tried his best to convince me not to go to Zhytomyr, because it was the area of Ukraine that was considered to be the poorest. ‘I can give you all the recommendations to become a successful doctor here!’ the dean told me. ‘Don’t go to Zhytomyr!'”
But the Lord had different plans for a young Dr. Olexandra. Not only did she and her new husband move to Zhytomyr, they were sent to one of the most remote and rural areas of the region. That was the first time that Olexandra had ever seen such humble and meager living conditions. The mortality rate among the children living in the area was as high as some of the poorest countries in Africa.
During those early years, Dr. Olexandra and her husband (also a doctor) would split their time between the main hospital in the area and the local village clinics. Through these interactions and getting to know the members of the rural community in which they were serving, the Lord grew their hearts for disadvantaged children and families. They encountered hardship and suffering, but also victories and even a significant decline in child mortality within the region because of their work.
She was thriving as a member of the hospital staff and loving the position that she had, even though the conditions were difficult. “If anyone had told me that I would be leaving my job at the children’s hospital to come here to Mission to Ukraine,” Dr. Olexandra laughed, “I would never have believed it. The way it all happened was very simple but very interesting.”
She continued, “I had heard of Mission to Ukraine, but I had never visited before. Little did I know that MTU was hoping and planning to extend its medical reach within the community and was praying for the right person to come on board to head up the department.” So she and her husband decided to visit and they were struck with the great need that MTU had for a person to head up the medical department. They determined that, at least for the meantime, they could volunteer their services within the organization.
It was a cool autumn day in October of 2000 when Dr. Olexandra began to see patients – women and children in desperate need – and her life was changed forever. She felt the Lord’s strong call to focus her attention on the people who were underserved and the poorest within the community. In May of the following year, she decided that she would come on full-time staff at Mission to Ukraine.
I wish for your sake that you could meet Dr. Olexandra, because there is something in her demeanor that just makes you hope she’ll hug you. Her eyes crinkle around the edges when she smiles, she has the most gentle and genuine spirit, and you feel immediately at ease when she walks into a room. If I were a kid, no question, I would want her to be my doctor (and maybe adopt her as my grandma as well). Clearly, she loves her job and is made for it. So I was curious. I wonder what she looks forward to the very most when she wakes up.
“The thing I look forward to the most, the thing that I think about first thing each morning, are the kids!” A look of thoughtfulness passed over her and she then expressed how she gives a bit of herself to each of the children she sees – and when they leave or graduate from MTU programs, they take a piece of her heart with them. She smiled once more, but there was a bit of sadness that stayed in her eyes. “I’ll never forget the kids I’ve served.”
Dr. Olexandra has seen too many miracles to name in her fourteen years of service. At an MTU summer camp, a child who had never spoken uttered his first word. She has witnessed children who were sure to be born with disabilities, born completely healthy. And she has nurtured friendships with mothers who were isolated, desperate, and alone and watched them thrive.
It is unlikely that your life will turn out the way you plan – and I know, at least for me, I hope mine doesn’t. My plans are never as good as the ones that God leads me into. So what does that look like for you? What’s pulling at your heart? Is there a need that you have overlooked in which you could be a catalyst for change? For Dr. Olexandra Bashek, it was following the call to a small town in central Ukraine to love on and care for children who need it most. Where will your call lead you?
About the Author: Sarah is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She has her undergraduate degree in Business Communication from Azusa Pacific University in Southern California and is currently working on her Masters degree in Organizational Leadership. Sarah recently finished a two and a half year assignment working for an anti-trafficking NGO in Kathmandu, Nepal, where she had the opportunity to mentor and lead college students in ministry abroad. She is mildly obsessed with Jeopardy, coffee, running, and the Atlanta Falcons.