INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana — If you wanted to share a defining moment from the life of Dr. Ellen Einterz, the natural instinct would be to start with a story from her 24 years of providing love and medical care to people in one of the poorest countries in Africa, people devastated by the impacts of AIDS, cholera and malaria.
But maybe the better beginning involves the email that changed the direction of her life in a way that still stuns the 63-year-old physician.
The email flashed onto her computer screen in the early part of 2016 when she was back in Indianapolis, back in the parish of her family and her youth — St. Matthew the Apostle.
At the time, she was just a few months removed from helping to take care of her dad — the son of an Irish-Catholic mother and a father who was a Jewish refugee from Russia — before he died in November 2015.
She was also finishing her memoir that captures her experiences in Cameroon, the African country where she long ago arrived in an atmosphere of distrust for the female doctor from America, a country where she helped build a hospital and a network of health professionals to serve people who live daily at the edge of life and death.
She was still hoping to return to Kolofata, the community in Cameroon to which she dedicated her life for 24 years. She also had become a target there of Boko Haram — the terrorist organization that in 2014 killed 17 of her friends and colleagues and kidnapped 17 more, just shortly after she had returned to Indianapolis for a summer visit.
She has been told she’s still a target and that her return would not only endanger her but others.
Amid all of this, the bold-highlighted email from the Marion County Health and Hospital Corporation appeared.
She had previously received emails from the same source and ignored them, but this time — she’s still not sure why — she opened it. And one word in the text transfixed her: “Refugees.”
The message stated that the health organization was looking for a doctor to provide health care for refugees, adding that they didn’t have a physician serving these new arrivals to America.
Einterz thought of her father and her grandfather. She thought about the increasing numbers of refugees who had arrived in Kolofata during the last years she was there. She replied the next day, and she started treating refugees in June 2016.
“I have felt the hand of God pushing and pulling me all my life, but always embracing me, making me believe somehow I would not fall,” she told The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. “The refugees are now part of that.”
The combination of care, commitment and concern that Einterz gives to her patients is captured in her memoir, Life and Death in Kolofata: An American Doctor in Africa. The foundation of the book comes from the descriptive, soul-sharing letters from Africa that she wrote home to her family, friends and supporters.
For 24 years, Einterz served faithfully and daily at this edge of life and death. And her heart for the people she treated rarely wavered.
Her journey to making a difference started as she grew up in a family of 13 children where their father kept telling them, “We are Christ, you are Christ, our neighbor is Christ.”
“I grew up with the understanding that I had been given a lot in life — and how much I was expected to give,” she said. “I was aware there was a lot of fixing that needed to be done in the world. It makes no sense to talk about it if you’re not willing to do it.”
At 19, she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger in 1974 — a time of major famine in that African country. Surrounded by death and inspired by a need to help, she decided to become a doctor. After medical school, she returned to Africa, spending six years in a Nigerian mission clinic before heading to Kolofata in 1990.
She always felt God wanted her to be there. And she stayed, even when the Boko Haram terrorist group started kidnapping foreigners in 2013 — a time when local authorities warned her that she was a prime target.
“I tried very much to live in the moment and stay focused on my work and the people who needed me,” she recalled. “I also felt it would be demoralizing for our hospital staff if I left. It seemed the need to stay was so much greater than the need to leave.”
Everything changed in 2014, shortly after Einterz returned to Indianapolis; she’d come home for a three-month stay every two years.
“A few weeks later, 200 fighters attacked Kolofata and came looking for me,” she said, lowering her eyes as her voice also got lower. “They ended up killing 17 and kidnapping 17. It was devastating. You feel totally helpless being so far away.”
From November 2014 to June 2015, she did return to Africa to help with the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. And now she provides medical care for refugees who have come to Marion County to start a new life after they had to flee their homeland to save their lives.
The refugees from Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Myanmar and Democratic Republic of Congo remind her of the people she cared for and cared about in Kolofata.
“People who again have had terrible things thrust upon them through no fault of their own, often because of religious persecution,” she said. “I thought I should step up and be available for them. In Kolofata, we had already been dealing with increasing numbers of refugees. I already felt an attachment to them.”
She sees one more telling connection between the refugees and the mothers in Kolofata.
“It’s their self-sacrifice for the good of their family. In many cases, I feel the parents have come not so much for themselves but to give their children a chance. And the children tend to do marvelously.”
That spirit of hope continues to guide her, too, even as she keeps in touch with the people at the hospital.
“It’s easy to see Christ and his mother in the people I have had the privilege to treat. They’re easy to love, and when you love, it’s a pretty nice state of being,” she said.
“Theologically, my faith is pretty grounded. I’ve never questioned the love of God in my life. I feel protected and guided by it.”
Shaughnessy is assistant editor of The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.