Dr. Carolyn Kirschner believes helping women is not just her job, it's her calling.
"I take care of women with female cancers, and it's difficult for them, but it's a privilege for me to be able to walk the journey with these women," said Kirschner, a gynecologic oncologist with NorthShore University HealthSystem.
What's more, Kirschner, 56, has been "serving the underserved" in Nigeria for the past 18 years, performing rehabilitative surgery for women who suffer from Vesicovaginal fistula (VVF), a debilitating condition rare in the U.S. but widespread there.
"Even if we do 500 surgeries a year in Nigeria, we're still just scratching the surface," she said.
In 1995, Kirschner and her husband, Dr. Greg Kirschner, packed up their four children and moved to Jos, Nigeria, where they lived for seven years as missionaries for Evangel Hospital.
"I helped the women with VVF, and we had a program where the women could heal physically and get emotional support," she said.
The Kirschners now live in Park Ridge. While most of her medical duties take place at Evanston Hospital, she returns to Nigeria once a year to continue her work there. Here is an edited version of our conversation.
Q: How did you meet your husband?
A: We joke about that because we met on a bus on the way to a mental hospital; we were both volunteering there our first year of undergrad at Northwestern. It was 1976, and we were both pre-med. We did go to different medical schools. I went to University of Illinois in Chicago and he went to Duke Medical School in North Carolina. We got married in 1981.
Q: When was your first missionary trip?
A: It was during medical school when Greg and I went to a mission's conference in Urbana and just kind of got inspired to serve others. We felt we had been given so much and had the privilege of studying medicine.
Our first medical mission trip was to the Dominican Republic in the mid-'80s. Greg and I both got sick. The conditions were not very easy. I remember (thinking), "I'm never doing this again!" It's stressful, you're hit with the poverty and the need, but a few weeks later we realized it was a wonderful experience.
I was probably the least likely candidate to be a missionary! I hate dirt, I hate bugs, I don't like to travel and I like a comfortable bed, I don't like to be too hot or too cold, and yet here I am sweating in the operating room, and the nurse has a fly swatter. But I do it because I know that's where I'm supposed to be, and I love it.
Q: How difficult was it taking four young children to Nigeria?
A: Our parents were really upset with us for taking our kids to Africa. Christine was 7; Katie, 5; Stephanie, 3; and Jon was 1, just barely walking. They were all holding on to my skirt when we landed in the airport in Nigeria. All the kids were crying, and we were the last ones out of customs, and my oldest said, "I want to go home!" And we were thinking, "What have we done?" But the kids made instant friends and within a week it was home.
Q: How common is Vesicovaginal fistula?
A: It's not very common in the United States, but it's estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of women in Nigeria who have VVF, which (can happen) when a young girl is laboring at home, laboring too long, and the baby's head gets trapped and crushes the mom's tissues so that it causes a hole in the bladder and sometimes the rectum. They are usually rejected by their husbands and left with no education and no means. So we have a center in Jos, Nigeria, with a rehabilitation hall and a hostel for the women. I was the director of the center from 2001 to 2004. We then left and I trained a Nigerian doctor, and he's still the director there. As we raise awareness of the problems of VVF and train other people to be able to do the surgery … that's when we're really going to make a difference.
Q: How do you cope with the stress of your job?
A: My faith is how I get through every day. If I think hard about all the responsibilities that I have with surgery and ordering chemotherapy for people, helping them through tough times, talking with them — yesterday I had to tell a 56-year-old patient that she's going to die soon. It was really hard. And without my faith, I couldn't do it. Every day when I wake up, I ask for wisdom and the ability to show love to people.
Q: Do you have any resolutions for the new year?
A: To publish at least one paper in 2014 from data we have collected from our fistula center. I also would like to spend more time with Greg enjoying music. And I love to cook. I love to have people over for a simple meal. The holidays are all about being around family and cooking and playing piano and enjoying music.
For Kirschner, running keeps her focused. "I really love being active physically," she says. "I try to run or jog four miles, four times a week. And my husband and I like to do races or half-marathons together. I started running in medical school as an excuse not to study. It totally clears your head, and when your day is chaotic, that really helps."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun