The Story of Jill Van Deusen
Steve Dennie, Communications Director
On Tuesday afternoon, August 21, 1979, Jill Van Deusen told Dr. Ron Baker that she had experienced weakness in her right hand since that morning. The next morning, Jill couldn’t get out of bed; she was almost completely paralyzed.
The quick paralysis shocked Dr. Baker, and he wondered what they could do in a minimally equipped bush hospital. How would they keep her breathing if her respiratory muscles became paralyzed? If they tried to evacuate her from the country, could she survive the trip? He consulted, by radio, doctors in Freetown and at the Wesleyan hospital at Kamakwie, and a doctor from the Catholic hospital in Serabu came to Mattru. They all agreed that Jill probably had Guillain-Barre Syndrom, a rare disease of the spinal cord, and that she needed to leave for Freetown right away.
All the missionaries pitched in. Judy Hoath ran the outpatient clinic. Sharon Frank took the Catholic doctor back to Serabu. Sharon Birdsall gathered the necessary drugs and medical equipment. Dennis Burkholder and Scott Taylor ran lab tests on Jill. Tina Wilkins helped care for Jill. Phil Fiedler made last-minute mechanical repairs on the hospital van for the trip. Cathy Jordan packed Jill’s things, and Jane Baker packed for Ron. Throughout the day, many Africans came to show their concern.
They removed the middle seat from the hospital van to accommodate a stretcher. Then, after a prayer time, Dr. Baker and Sharon Birdsall, along with an African driver, began the long journey to Freetown. Cathy Jordan and another African, Joseph Jaiah, followed behind in a Suzuki jeep. The bumpy dirt road jostled the stretcher, so they stopped several times to readjust it.
After two-and-a-half hours, they arrived in Bumpe, where Jerry Datema and June Brown were waiting. June Brown brought another blanket, Jerry Datema offered a prayer, and they continued the remaining 150 miles to Freetown. They arrived at Connaught Government Hospital in Freetown at 1:30 Thursday morning. Jill was doing well, but was glad the trip was over.
The paralysis didn’t spread much that night. “As always, Jill was courageous and calm, a quality that gave strength to all of us,” Dr. Baker later wrote in the November 1979 United Brethren magazine. “Her attitude in the face of near death and almost total paralysis revealed an underlying faith that we will never forget.”
Dr. Baker consulted with African doctors, who all agreed that Jill needed to be evacuated to a place where she could receive intensive medical care. They planned to catch the KLM flight Thursday afternoon. Dr. Baker arranged to use Connaught Hospital’s ambulance, and he tracked down a portable respirator with oxygen to take along in case Jill had more difficulty breathing on the plane.
That afternoon, Dr. Baker and Sharon Birdsall gulped some homemade pizza at the mission house and piled into the VW van to return to the hospital. As they drove down the very steep hill, a lorry coming up the hill swerved around a parked car and into their lane. Dr. Baker hit the brakes, but nothing happened—they were completely out. They crashed into a wall, careened along it, and finally hit the parked car. Fortunately, nobody was hurt and the damage was minimal. But they arrived a half hour later than expected. Jill was brought from intensive care on a stretcher and loaded into the ambulance. They flew through the narrow streets of Freetown with the siren on, and caught the car ferry to cross the bay to the airport.
But it wasn’t to be. The incoming plane couldn’t accommodate a stretcher. They would need to wait for the next flight Friday morning. And so, at 10 pm, they were back at the hospital, discouraged. Jill was doing her best and not complaining, but she was fatigued and having more respiratory problems. Her condition was deteriorating, and Dr. Baker didn’t know how much longer she could last. They had to get her to a modern medical center soon.
Since he now doubted that he would be able to care for Jill by himself, as previously planned, he asked Sharon to accompany him on the flight. “It was later,” Baker wrote, “that I understood why God didn’t allow us to take the first flight out. Had we gone then, I would have been without Sharon’s help, which later turned out to be absolutely necessary.”
Dr. Baker spent the night at the hospital. Sharon Birdsall and Cathy Jordan arrived at 5:30 to prepare for the trip back to the airport, the ambulance arrived at 6:30, they reached the ferry at 7:30, and by 8:30 were in Lungi Airport. Clint Foreman met them at the ferry, and took care of all arrangements—tickets, baggage, taxes, visa, health certificates, tip, and much more. Since Jill was having difficulty breathing, the airport doctor provided oxygen tanks. They got Jill used to breathing with the help of a hand-operated respiratory bag. As she grew accustomed to it, she relaxed and was able to breathe much more deeply than she could on her own.
After they had gotten Jill aboard the plane, the pilot called Dr. Baker to the cockpit. He said he had just received a telex from Amsterdam saying he was not to leave Freetown with Jill. Amsterdam officials feared that she might have polio, and didn’t want to take responsibility. The pilot and copilot tried to contact Amsterdam so Baker could explain the situation, but had no luck.
The pilot finally suggested that Ron write a letter stating that Jill’s condition was such that if she wasn’t evacuated immediately, she would die; and that he would take full responsibility if anything happened to her. Baker wrote it as quickly as he could, and the airport’s KLM manager approved it. And soon after 11 a.m., they were airborne.
Ron and Sharon kept busy the entire flight. Sharon stood on Jill’s right side with all the drugs and equipment, while Ron crouched in a seat behind Jill’s head. Every 2-3 minutes, he would hold the face mask snugly over Jill’s nose and mouth while Sharon squeezed the respiratory bag. Occasionally, they used the portable respirator, which delivered oxygen at a higher pressure so she could breathe more deeply.
Within minutes of landing in Amsterdam, the waiting ambulance whisked them to the Wilhelmina Gasthuis medical center. Dr. Baker stayed there four more days, and was pleased by the excellent care Jill received. She seemed to be improving. Though still on a respirator, she was beginning to swallow liquids and slight movement had returned to her fingers.
He later wrote, “Throughout the crisis of the previous week, Jill’s strong faith in a very personal and loving God had touched many lives in Sierra Leone, on the plane and in Amsterdam. I know, because my life was touched, too. Thank you, Jill. And thank you, Lord.”
Sharon Birdsall stayed with Jill in Amsterdam. Jill was soon able to move her fingers and forearms, and then to breathe on her own for about 10 minutes each hour…and then 30 minutes each hour. By September 15, she was moving her legs and sitting up in bed. Finally, she left the respirator entirely. During those weeks in Amsterdam, Jill received over 200 cards from people in Sierra Leone, North America, and Holland.
Jill and Sharon flew to the States on October 3. Sharon returned to Sierra Leone on October 10, while Jill continued to improve under regular physical therapy, first in Grand Rapids, Mich., and then back in her hometown of Hillsdale, Mich.
In the January 1980 United Brethren, Jill wrote about that take-off from Freetown. “God comforted me with a dream. I saw our jet climbing, and I saw the curvature of the earth. We climbed higher until I saw the west side of the continent of Africa and we started veering west over the Atlantic toward the States. As we got higher, I noticed people standing around the globe in a ring, all holding hands. The jet went faster and faster. We started flying parallel with the people holding hands. No matter how fast we flew, the person next in view was already bowed in prayer. Only later did I know that by that time, people in the States had a fantastic safety net of prayer woven under me.”
Jill Van Deusen, 70, a former missionary in Sierra Leone, passed away on Thursday, May 23, 2013, at the University of Toledo Medical Center.
Jill, a native of Hillsdale, Mich., served as a teacher in Sierra Leone for nine years. After returning from Sierra Leone, Jill worked two years in Washington DC with Angel Tree Prison Fellowship, and then moved to Archbold, Ohio, where she taught school at Four County Career Center, near Archbold, and also worked at the Archbold Library. She was a member of the Archbold Evangelical Church.
Jill Van Deusen almost died in Africa, back in August 1979. Here is that story.