I was in Sri Lanka visiting a mobile clinic run by Heidi. I had to drive up a muddy track with trees on one side and a drop on the other side. As I was driving up the hill an ox cart came the other way. Heidi thought the situation was hilarious! As I got hot and bothered trying to manoeuvre so the ox could get by, Heidi laughed and laughed! It was typical of her sense of humour.
It all started about 22 years ago when Derek Brown, our church leader, asked me to speak to Heidi and see if there was anything that could help her achieve her dreams. Heidi was working for a local hospital as a state registered nurse. She wanted the opportunity to serve God in a developing country, using her skills as a nurse. We were able to send her out to Sri Lanka.
Shy but strong
Heidi was a quiet and reserved girl. But beneath that shyness there was an extremely strong character, well able to handle other people in a compassionate way, and firm enough to deal with people who were a bit awkward, or people under stress. Heidi was born in Germany but had spent most of her time in Great Britain. She was a qualified lawyer but made a career change and took up nursing.
Her vision of a mobile clinic
In Sri Lanka she initially worked for a clinic in Colombo but had a vision to set up a mobile clinic in the hill country among the tea estates. She trained a team of nurses, employed a driver, and was helped by a local doctor. The idea was that they would travel to a remote village, set up a clinic in the open air or in somebody’s home and then the following day could go to another site.
At Kingscare (now karuna Action), we applied for lottery funding to set up and run the mobile clinic. We were not successful in this application, but such was Heidi’s determination and vision, we decided that we would go ahead anyway, though we had to scale down the plans a little.
I remember visiting one of Heidi’s clinics. We set off early one morning from Kandy to a village called Rangala, high up in the hills, surrounded by tea estates. The clinic was to be based in a church building (only a part hut really). When we arrived, there were about 100 people queueing up to be seen. Heidi and her team quickly set up and started dealing with the patients.
I remember a child who had had a small accident and his leg needed bandaging. Heidi explained that so often simple wounds, left untreated, could result in the child limping for life – or even worse!
A nurse would register each patient, give them a number so that they could be seen in turn, and decide whether they needed to see a doctor or a nurse. They took with them a selection of medicine and tablets, and the doctor would scrawl a prescription note and one of the nurses would measure out some tablets or liquid medicine. The patients all expected something, and if there was no appropriate medicine, they may have gone home with a few aspirin or vitamins.
As a foreigner, Heidi had to visit the immigration office often to renew her visa. Sometimes she had to leave the country, and fly to India and back again to get a new six monthly Visa. After a year or two in Sri Lanka, Heidi fell in love with a Sri Lankan young man called Kithsiri Mudalige and they got married. I teased her, saying, “well that has solved your visa problem!”
A year later, Heidi gave birth to a son, Nathan. She had a complicated delivery, and nearly died. She needed a blood transfusion, and some young men from that local church willingly donated some blood. Afterwards she said proudly, “now I have Sri Lankan blood in my veins”. Heidi survived the traumatic delivery but was not able to have any more children.
Heidi must have run hundreds of clinics over the years in Sri Lanka. She was a lady with a vision and determination to put God’s love into action in the way she lived. She could have lived a comfortable life in Europe, but gave up all that to serve God and to serve the poor in another country. Her love for people was genuine and practical without a trace of condescension. Ultimately, she gave up her life in sacrifice because of her love for God and humanity.
The final price
I think she knew that cancer was taking hold on her body but simply ignored the symptoms so that she could carry on with her work. Christine and I visited her in 2002. She was clearly very ill and had to be taken in to hospital in Colombo. We had to return home, but soon after heard the news that she had died.
In a hot climate, people tend to be buried very swiftly and I quickly booked a emergency flight back to arrive in time for the funeral. Her funeral service brought together people from churches all over Sri Lanka. She was buried in a corner of a graveyard belonging to the Lighthouse Church in Kandy.
By this time, Nathan was growing up to be a fine 8-year-old boy. I remember a well-meaning person saying to Nathan, “Your mother is sleeping”, and his firm reply, “She’s with Jesus”. At the funeral service, he read a poem he had written, and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the place.
The charity was honoured to support Nathan during his school years. He is shortly to go to the United States to study at Bible school. He is a tribute to Heidi his mother, to Kithsiri his father and to Maggie his new mother.
Heidi may have died in Sri Lanka but gave so much to that country. There are many poor people, living in the tea estates who probably would not be alive today if it wasn’t for Heidi and her team of nurses. There are children running around who might have been crippled for life if it it not been for Heidi treating their wounds at an early stage.
Heidi went to Sri Lanka to give of herself, and to show love. I’m sure she went without expecting to find love and marriage there but I’m so glad that she received love as well as gave it. Heidi was an inspiration to us all and I’m quite sure that her Father in heaven will say to her, “Well done, good and faithful servant”.