She worked for Cessna for years. Now she travels the world helping people

In the first two months of operation, Samaritan’s Purse medical staff treated more than 3,400 patients at the diphtheria treatment center in Bangladesh.
In the first two months of operation, Samaritan’s Purse medical staff treated more than 3,400 patients at the diphtheria treatment center in Bangladesh. Courtesy Photo

In Bangladesh, 800,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees are crammed into a camp, living in homes made of bamboo and plastic tarp.

It takes a host of people to respond to the illnesses breaking out in the close quarters. Among those people is Nancy Smith, who is from Wichita.

The Rohingya refugee crisis may feel far away for most Kansans, but Smith was in Bangladesh in January.

nancy smith

“It’s hard to get your head around what happens outside the States unless you’ve been there,” said Smith, who works in logistics supporting offices around the world for Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian relief organization.

The scope of the work is great: The Rohingya are fleeing Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship and face institutionalized discrimination and violence, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. After a militant group claimed attacks on police and army posts in August, the Myanmar military destroyed hundreds of Rohingya villages, killing at least 6,700 Rohingya and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee the country.

Saving a life

Smith recalls being woken up at about 4 in the morning in Bangladesh, where she worked on importing medical supplies and transitioning the work from crisis mode to a more sustainable model.

She worked out of Cox’s Bazar, a city in southern Bangladesh where Samaritan’s Purse had set up operations in a hotel. The multinational disaster assistance response team was operating a diphtheria treatment center at the Rohingya camp, about an hour’s drive away from Cox’s Bazar.

A little boy was sick with diphtheria, Smith was told over the phone. They weren’t sure if he would live.

Diphtheria is rare in the United States, largely eradicated by vaccines. Few Rohingya have been vaccinated, and the disease has spread throughout the camp. It can lead to difficulty breathing, heart failure, paralysis and even death. It’s particularly serious for children.

At 4 in the morning, the doctors were in Cox’s Bazar with Smith, not at the camp with the little boy.

Taxis don’t run at night in Bangladesh and Smith couldn’t get hold of the organization’s driver. She woke up hotel staff to ask about their shuttle and was told the driver wouldn’t be there until 8 a.m.

In four hours, the little boy could be dead, Smith thought. She went up to her office praying.

She’d been in the office about ten minutes when there was a knock on the door. The front desk worker spoke little English, but he urged her to come downstairs. He had called in the hotel’s driver, who was able to take the doctors and nurses to the camp.

Later that day, Samaritan’s Purse uploaded a picture of the little boy and his father online. Smith took that picture to the clerk at the front desk, telling him that he had helped save that little boy’s life.

The point of the story is that God places people where they need to be, Smith said, including the driver, the desk clerk, the doctors and logistics.

“Had logistics not been there to get the doctors there, he may not have made it,” Smith said. “You don’t have to be the hero on the front page. Whatever your gifting is, there’s work to be done.”

Wizard of Oz

Others in Samaritan’s Purse like to joke that Smith is the “Wizard of Oz.” She’s from Kansas and she works behind the scenes.

Smith says that unlike the wizard, she has a team of people helping her make a difference.

Dr. Elliott Tenpenny, manager of emergency medical response for Samaritan’s Purse, said Smith’s work ensuring that supplies arrive and that operations go smoothly is essential.

“A group of doctors and nurses are nothing if the medication they need isn’t there with them,” Tenpenny said. “A surgeon reaches out for a scalpel, but if that scalpel isn’t there, he doesn’t accomplish anything that day.”

In the first two months of operation, Samaritan’s Purse had treated more than 3,400 men, women and children in the camp, many of whom were admitted for diphtheria.

Smith isn’t sure if she’ll return to Bangladesh, but there have been talks about doing so if the need arises.

All the same

When Smith tells people in Wichita about her world travels, they sometimes think she’s a bit crazy.

She’s been a hospital administrator in Iraq, helped support the Samaritan’s Purse’s mobile field hospital in Ecuador, spent three years in Haiti and has traveled the world.

Originally from Topeka, Smith had worked in Wichita for Cessna for years before she felt called to go to Haiti. Leaving the country was terrifying, she said.

She’d never had any desire to leave the United States before going to Haiti, where she found herself adapting to the heat, different senses of personal space and a culture she didn’t understand.

Her mind changed when she was walking through a government office with her customs broker, observing stacks of paper on the floor and people using pencils and paper. A pretty basic computer could make things more efficient, she said.

The customs broker looked at Smith in a way that said, “You’re not from here.”

There’s no consistent power source to operate the computers, she told Smith, and with a high unemployment rate, automating would just mean fewer jobs.

“I had to adjust to their world as opposed to trying to bring my world to them,” Smith said.

She learned another lesson in Haiti when she took a photo of a man standing at a bus stop with his daughter, waiting for her to head to school.

The picture was “normalizing” to her, she said, and she’s taken similar photos around the world: Mothers smiling proudly over their children, a father helping his child to read, a family doing laundry.

That’s taught her a lesson she remembers even when at home in Wichita.

“We all want for our children to have better than us. We all want our children to be taken care of, to have sufficient food to eat, shelter, to have a good life,” Smith said. “Our conditions are dramatically different, that causes us to adjust and live our lives differently, but in essence we’re all the same.”

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @KathsBurgess