Life-Saving Lessons

Deadly famine changes professor’s focus from treating to teaching

By Kimberly Felton

Marcella Gowan at an Ethiopian Clinic

In 2010, Gowan took a group of George Fox nursing students to work in an Ethiopian clinic.

The flies. The heat. The death.

Marcella Gowan, assistant professor of nursing at George Fox University, worked with World Concern on the Ethiopia/Somalia border in 1981 in the midst of famine. With 180,000 people in the refugee camp, “it was an intense time; people dying – hundreds – every day.”

Gowan and the other nurses “were focused on saving the person in front of us, putting IVs in everyone,” she says. Then a physician specializing in relief work suggested they stop treating and start teaching.

As the nurses trained local people to treat basic symptoms, “it started slowing down the massive deaths,” Gowan says. “And it taught me that we need to teach, need to educate.”

She has applied the lesson ever since.

Gowan returned to the U.S. and earned a bachelor of science in nursing and a master in public health with an international major. Then she followed her heart back overseas – this time with a husband and baby.

They landed in southern Somalia at a leprosy village, where Gowan taught traditional birth attendants and ran a clinic for children and pregnant women.

When Somalia fell into anarchy three years later, she and her husband caught one of the last commercial flights out of the country. Stateside, Gowan became a Certified Nurse Midwife. “I did a lot of midwifery in Somalia,” she says, “and I wanted to see how I could do things better.”

For seven years Gowan worked as a midwife in Oregon, but with the desire to serve God abroad, “we always look for invitations,” she says. “If you’re asked to be there, that’s a good reason to think you should be there.” Serving In Missions (SIM) invited them to work in Djibouti, Africa, in 1996. They accepted.

“I delivered babies every day under wretched conditions,” she says. “It was not uncommon for mother and baby to die. Not a lot of emotion about it for them. It was totally unacceptable to me.”

When death threats targeted Gowan and her family (which now included four children, two adopted in Djibouti) following the terrorist attacks on America, Gowan accepted an invitation to teach midwifery at a hospital school in Somaliland, a country with no trained healthcare workers.

Marcella Gowan teaching in Somaliland

Gowan teaches life-saving CPR skills to nursing students in Somaliland.

“I found out I had to first turn students into nurses, before teaching them midwifery,” Gowan says. For three years she taught 25 nursing students. “They followed me everywhere – they had no one else to watch and learn from.” Then in 2004, terrorists killed six ex-pats in Somaliland, including Gowan’s close friend. Time to move back to the states.

Gowan did not plan to stay stateside, until she found a job that combined her love for teaching with her passion for the majority world. “Unlike other places I looked for work, where employers thought it was nice I had worked overseas, at George Fox they wanted to know if I could take students abroad – because that’s really important here.”

With a nine-month contract at Fox, Gowan is free to teach elsewhere in the summer, as she did in 2006 in Tajikistan, where a roomful of nurse midwives and obstetricians gained life-saving skills to help their patients through childbirth.

In 2010, Gowan’s lesson of educating others came full circle when she led a group of George Fox nursing students to Ethiopia, where they both taught and learned. “I didn’t want students to say we were coming to serve,” she says. “I wanted an exchange between the Ethiopian nurses and our students.”

George Fox students worked in a clinic side-by-side with national nurses. They learned from the nurses how to give immunizations and provided “kangaroo care” to newborn twins who were so cold their temperatures did not register. “The students turned the situation around,” says Gowan. The twins survived.

In the evenings, the students provided continuing education classes for the nurses through lessons they had prepared from their studies.

Now working on her doctorate of education, Gowan continues to learn. And rather than just “focusing on the person in front of her,” she’s multiplying her efforts, passing on to the next generation the skills to heal, the passion to teach, and eyes to see a world full of promise.