RICHMOND, Va. — “I’m down to Barbie Band-Aids. Sorry, dude,” nurse Joe Thomas tells a future missionary in his mid-20s after giving him a shot.
Thomas and Katrina Otto are longtime volunteer nurses at immunization clinics at the International Learning Center (ILC) near Richmond, Va. During the two-month orientations to prepare for missionaries for service with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board (IMB), the nurses administer shots for everything from rabies to Japanese encephalitis and yellow fever.
Otto, an emergency room nurse at Providence Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., has been volunteering since 1999. When she accompanied a friend to the IMB for a missionary orientation in 1998, she realized the shot clinics were an excellent opportunity to use her nursing skills. She also has a special place in her heart for missionaries — her parents were North American Mission Board missionaries in Alaska.
Thomas, a nurse in the intensive care unit at St. Luke’s South Hospital in Overland Park, Kan., heard about the opportunity through Otto, a fellow church member at Lenexa (Kan.) Baptist Church. After going with Otto to a missionary orientation at ILC in 2000, Thomas committed to returning as a volunteer as a way to be involved in missions while using his God-given talents.
Experience pays off
Thomas and Otto’s years of working together at the clinics is evident: Swab with alcohol, then one, two, three — poke. The nurses’ needles puncture each arm of the patient in unison.
The reactions vary. Some victims scrunch their eyes shut. Some stare placidly at photographs from southern Asia and Africa on the clinic wall. Still others crack jokes during the procedure.
Otto and Thomas attempt to lighten the mood with a little humor of their own. In fact, they have worked together so long they coordinate their jokes.
“Thank you for choosing IMB for your immunization care,” Otto says as a patient exits the room after receiving four shots, two in each arm. “There will not be a quiz later,” Thomas adds as he hands out information about the vaccines just administered.
Four times a year, Thomas and Otto fly to Richmond from Kansas at their own expense. Airfare isn’t cheap, but God has always provided. The nurses say the rewards of volunteering far outweigh the cost.
“One of our goals is to be a support to the full-time medical staff and provide them with what they need,” Otto said. “God spoke to us about coming, and I’m honored to be a part of it.”
Vaccinating hundreds of missionaries and their families at each orientation is a feat that IMB’s full-time medical staff couldn’t accomplish without Thomas and Otto’s help. This past summer, 3,000 shots were administered. At one session, 486 shots were given in just two and a half hours.
An average of 12,000 to 15,000 shots are dispensed at ILC per year which, according to Sandy Hammack, an IMB clinical nurse, makes IMB one of the largest administrators of immunizations on the East Coast.
The volume of work makes IMB’s medical staff appreciate Thomas and Otto’s servant hearts even more.
“It’s significant because they not only come at their own expense, they use their vacation time,” Hammack said. “They take off four times a year — for each of the orientation sessions.”
But their dedication doesn’t stop there. Both nurses sometimes work the graveyard shift so they are able to fly out for an IMB shot clinic that same morning. They are careful to plan mission trips and work schedules around clinic dates. They’ve even turned down job offers because they wouldn’t be able to volunteer at ILC.
Furthering the kingdom
“We’ve established a certain skill set, and to get to use it to further the kingdom, that’s really enjoyable,” Thomas said. “Ever since I became a Christian, I had an interest in missions. For whatever reason, God has not called my wife and me to full-time missions, but this is a place I can contribute to international missions on a continuing basis and do my part.”
Spending time with the missionaries and getting to hear their stories is what Thomas finds most rewarding.
“We (have) heard some fantastic stories of God working through them and how they were called and the conflicts they go through to get here and the commitment they make to go,” Thomas said.
Another benefit is seeing firsthand how Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and Cooperative Program funds are used. The immunizations, some of which can cost $100 or more, are paid for by Southern Baptist contributions.
When Thomas and Otto return home, they share their experiences with their church family.
“We get the privilege of coming in and seeing all the support provided for the missionaries,” Thomas said, “and we try to encourage people from our church to get a glimpse of what is going on.”
One sacrifice both nurses make is time away from their families. Otto’s husband is disabled and Thomas’ wife is continuing to recover from a serious car accident. But the prayer networks they’ve established are a major support. In addition to their church, they have prayer partners in the IMB missionary community.
When Thomas’ wife was injured in 2005, he was unable to make it to several immunization clinics. But he knew he and his wife were being remembered.
“They took it on as a group to pray for her,” he said. “There were (missionaries) not only here (in Richmond), but when they went all over the world, they were praying for her.”
Otto added, “When things happen in our family, these are some of the first people we call to ask for prayer.”
When they aren’t busy with clinics and their jobs, Thomas and Otto frequently go on mission trips. On several occasions, they’ve encountered missionaries on the field they had inoculated at ILC. These full-circle moments remind the two that every Christian plays a part in helping fulfill the Great Commission.
“God is doing fantastic things and He’s not calling ‘supermen,’“ Thomas said. “He’s calling ordinary people who are willing to commit in obedience, and it is just such an encouragement to come (to ILC).”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Anderson is a writer for the International Mission Board.)