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Merrie Sue Holtan / SheSays Contributor, Published January 16 2013

In and out of Africa: A courageous tale, a desire to serve

OTTERTAIL, Minn. - Dr. Susan Vitalis’ life reads like a geography lesson.

Map pins placed on her world experiences pepper the globe. Her life has taken her from Montana to North Dakota and Minnesota, Baltimore and then on to China, Kenya, Somalia, Southern Sudan, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Albania, Mongolia, Tibet, India, Egypt and Jordan. Today she lives in Ottertail, raising money and working as an administrator for health causes in Africa.

Thoughts about her life’s work began early for Susan. As an elementary student growing up in Billings, Mont., Susan thought about one day becoming a missionary in a land far away.

Those thoughts of serving echoed in her mind and heart, reinforced by her father, Dale, a pastor, and her mom, Lu, a nurse and nursing instructor.

The Vitalis family of six moved to Fargo when Susan was in junior high. She remembers giving a student chapel sermon at Oak Grove High School, where her dad was the campus pastor.

“I remember struggling with God’s will for my life,” Susan says, “even as a sophomore. What was to be my purpose? So I read many books and gave my chapel talk about that quest. I’ll never forget that day.”

After graduation, she followed her older sister, Kathy, to Concordia “I lived in Kathy’s shadow,” says Susan, smiling. “I was known as the sister who didn’t talk. Kathy was popular and I was comfortable. I began coming out of my shell at Oak Grove, and at Concordia, Kathy was still popular, and I was popular by association.”

Following college graduation, with a biology degree in hand, Susan applied at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, never thinking she would be accepted.

“My Concordia professors encouraged me, and Johns Hopkins wanted ‘well-rounded’ students who were more than just a GPA,” Susan says. “And I made it.”

Her final year at Johns Hopkins, Susan did a three month rotation in China studying cardiology, infectious diseases and traditional Chinese medicine. She moved to residency at Methodist Hospital in Minneapolis and began volunteering with Samaritan’s Purse, World Medical Mission in 1990, in Kenya.

“A desire still burned in my heart to serve,” Susan says.

Throughout most of the 1990s, Susan practiced at Park Nicollet Urgent Care Clinic in Minneapolis, a job flexible enough to allow her to volunteer her medical services for months at a time in countries torn by civil wars and disaster.

“When I was actually making money, I felt I was getting a little too comfortable. Urgent care gave me the flexibility to serve, and a place to come back to give me perspective.”

AT RISK

When asked by World Medical Mission to go to Somalia in 1993, Susan knew she was putting her life at risk. She talked to others for insight and prayed. Then her dad had a heart attack, which put the decision on hold.

“I’m convinced that my call is to be a ‘light in the darkness,’ ” she says. So she eventually packed her bags for Mogadishu, Somalia.

“After the Blackhawk Down (helicopter) incident, we were pulled out for security reasons,” Susan says. “We were targeted.”

From Somalia, Susan traveled to Southern Sudan and a small village where she provided basic medical care and educated local community health workers and traditional birth attendants.

Whenever a war broke out, Susan’s family asked her, “When are you going?”

She ended up in Rwanda during the 1995 civil war, one of her most oppressive memories, and in Bosnia, where she assessed needs following a civil war in 1996.

“I once asked her why she felt the need to go to dangerous places,” says her sister, Kathy Vitalis Hoffman, a pastor in Maryland. “She said she heard a pastor preach that being a Christian meant taking up a cross and following Jesus, even to Somalia or Rwanda.”

While serving in Bosnia, Susan “blew out” her knee playing basketball.

She returned to the U.S. for three surgeries but still lives with leg pain. The injury curbed her urgent care practice and her medical disaster relief work.

In 2010, she traveled to India to study community-based primary health care. Following that she filled a temporary position as medical director for Emmanuel Health Center in Gallo, Central African Republic, and began community health education in outlying villages.

“We really want to empower the CAR villages to own their health care and solve their own problems one village at a time,” Susan says. “We ask them questions; they identify what they need as a community, and we listen. For example, they need clean water and wells, so we help them find resources to build the wells. We don’t have to do it for them.”

Susan’s team, Global Health Ministries, works in partnership with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She points out that in Fargo, Hope Lutheran, First Lutheran and Olivet Lutheran have been generous with money and resources for education about malaria and the use of mosquito nets for prevention.

She adds that HIV-AIDS education, prevention and treatment, as well as educating local CAR health care professionals remain high on the list of needs.

Susan’s 18-year-old niece, Amy Hoffman, who was born in Fargo and is now a senior at Middletown (Md.) High School, traveled with her to the CAR.

“Even with the language barrier, everyone knew Susan cared about them,” Amy says. “She exposed me to a world that needed help.”

Susan plans her return to the CAR this spring, with financial support coming from friends, family and ELCA synods. She keeps close ties to her sister Kathy and her husband Mark Vitalis Hoffman, a theology professor, and two nieces Amy and Sarah in Maryland, her sister Beth, a scientist in California, and brother Steve in Fargo.

“Rarely does the world see a woman as phenomenal as my aunt,” Amy says. “Her dedication and joy in helping others is something I hope to embody one day.”