Delivering relief aid

Choosing Life in Bolivia’s Covid-Struck Highlands

By: Jeanette Windle with Fernando and Marilyn Fernandez

When BCM Bolivia missionaries Fernando and Marilyn Fernandez chose their ministry vision statement, it was one that applies as aptly to their own family:

“I have set before you life and death . . . Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 30:19b-20).

Fernando and Marilyn Fernandez both grew up in Christian homes in the Bolivian highland city of Cochabamba. Marilyn’s father was a missionary pastor. She began ministry herself in her teens, working with children’s camps, Bible Clubs, AWANA, and puppet ministry. Fernando felt God’s call to ministry at sixteen and has served as a pastor and evangelist for more than fifteen years.

If that isn’t enough to keep them busy, both graduated with degrees in general medicine (M.D.) and maintain an active medical practice. All three of their children are involved with their parents in ministry. Their daughter is finishing her own medical degree and is a leader with Intervarsity at her university. Their oldest son is completing a degree in computer science and heads up a worship ministry. Even their youngest son, age ten, is happy to lend a helping hand in evangelistic and social aid outreaches.

Fernando and Marilyn were part of BCM’s first missionary candidate school in Bolivia almost twenty years ago. Seeing the enormous poverty, lack of health care, and subsequent unnecessary death rates in their nation, the poorest country in Latin America, they felt called to a ministry that not only shares the gospel but meets people’s life-and-death physical needs. This led to founding their Christian medical ministry, Elijo La Vida, or I Choose Life. The ministry encompasses a number of outreaches, especially to poverty-level women and children, the most neglected segment of Bolivian society.

Preventative Health Care and Education

Through the clinic, needy patients not only receive direct medical care but preventative screenings for cervical and breast cancer as well as other medical testing. This is a program taken into villages and poor neighborhoods in cooperation with local churches. Most of these areas have no access to medical care or health education. As women wait for screening, they receive basic health presentations and instructional videos. The gospel is also communicated through puppet shows, devotional talks, and sharing God’s love and mercy one-on-one. Many women have placed their faith in Jesus Christ through this program.

A second program carries out school assemblies throughout the city of Cochabamba on the topics of sex, abortion, and abstinence. Introducing teens to the Author of life, Jesus Christ, is always a central part of each presentation.

Another program, Entre Amigas, or Among Friends, helps single mothers choose life for their babies instead of abortion. Along with parental training, counseling, and discipleship, this program also helps the mothers finish their education and some type of technical training so that they can support their children.

Child cancer patient at clinic

Breath of Life

Five years ago, the Fernandez added a new field of ministry, Aliento de Vida, or Breath of Life, which helps patients and their families with palliative care, i.e., the medical, psychological, social, and physical care of terminally ill patients and their families. This began as Fernando and Marilyn saw numerous patients with advanced cancer and other terminal illnesses coming through their ministry who were too poor for any palliative medical care. Patients as well as their families were left experiencing extreme physical pain and grief in the final months and weeks of life.

“God placed a burden on our hearts for these people,” shares Marilyn Fernandez. “At first we resisted because we knew how painful it would be to work with so much suffering as people face death.”

But Fernando and Marilyn also knew many of these people were facing eternity without knowing Jesus Christ as Savior. Returning to the classroom, they both completed a post-graduate degree in palliative care, then started Aliento de Vida, which adds to medical and familial palliative care a clear presentation of the hope of eternal life in Jesus Christ.

“Our objective is that these patients pass their final days without pain and in the presence of family,” shares Fernando and Marilyn. “But above all that they leave this life knowing Jesus Christ and with the assurance of eternal life in heaven.”

Sharing Jesus Christ with terminally ill patients has also led to their families and community hearing the gospel. In the midst of pain and death, entire families have come to Christ and are now part of a local church.

Covid-19

When the coronavirus reached Bolivia, little attention was at first given beyond the basic quarantine restrictions of other countries. The official rate of infection and death remains extremely low with only 150,000 confirmed cases and 9000 deaths since March. But these figures reflected the grim reality that most Bolivians had access to neither COVID-testing nor health care, so they simply didn’t show up on official reports.

The true extent of the virus became apparent by July when in just a five-day period police collected over four hundred bodies of COVID victims left abandoned in the streets. The hospitals became so overwhelmed they began shutting their doors and posting signs that read: “There Is No Space.” Funeral homes and cemeteries stopped accepting burials. Medications, lab tests, chemotherapy and radiation for cancer patients, and virtually every medical supply were in short supply or not available at all.

When the coronavirus reached Bolivia, little attention was at first given beyond the basic quarantine restrictions of other countries. The official rate of infection and death remains extremely low with only 150,000 confirmed cases and 9000 deaths since March. But these figures reflected the grim reality that most Bolivians had access to neither COVID-testing nor health care, so they simply didn’t show up on official reports.

The true extent of the virus became apparent by July when in just a five-day period police collected over four hundred bodies of COVID victims left abandoned in the streets. The hospitals became so overwhelmed they began shutting their doors and posting signs that read: “There Is No Space.” Funeral homes and cemeteries stopped accepting burials. Medications, lab tests, chemotherapy and radiation for cancer patients, and virtually every medical supply were in short supply or not available at all.

All of which propelled Elijo La Vida Ministries in a new direction. Their medical team has been able to make home visits to many pastors, church members, and missionaries all across the city of Cochabamba who contracted COVID, supplying treatment, medications, oxygen, and other essential supplies. They also consulted by phone with at least fifteen to twenty new coronavirus patients a day, eventually supervising a total of more than two hundred-fifty COVID patients.

One sizeable group to which the Fernandez minister are children with cancer. More than twenty of these patients contracted COVID, which meant that their entire families were quarantined. Simply tracking down medications and ensuring the children and their families have food has been a major undertaking.

Sadly, five adult cancer patients and two of the children lost their battle to COVID. But Fernando and Marilyn give thanks that all had received Jesus Christ and are now free of pain and death in the presence of their Savior.

“These were truly difficult months,” shares Marilyn. “We saw friends, fellow pastors and their families, medical colleagues, and many brothers and sisters in Christ die of COVID. Our entire family except Fernando contracted the virus, and we spent a month in isolation. Thank God we have all recovered. But these were times when we could only hold on to our Savior, trusting and depending on Him.”

Coronavirus also brought suffering to many families who have not experienced illness but have been left without employment or food for their families due to the strict quarantine regulations. Elijo La Vida has been able to help more than two hundred families with food supplies. 

Drs. Fernando and Marilyn Fernandez ask for ongoing prayer:
  • For their patients, children as well as adults, and for the families, especially their many end-of-life patients.
  • For physical stamina and emotional fortitude for the Elijo La Vida team and for the Fernandez family as they care for terminal patients in difficult, traumatic circumstances.
  • For financial provision to continue helping patients at the poorest end of the economic scale.
  • For additional volunteers to carry the ministry forward.

“Above all,” summarizes Marilyn, “pray with us that God will give us opportunity to continue reaching those enduring such great suffering with the hope of the gospel and the love and mercy of our heavenly Father so they may find eternal peace and rest with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

The Fernandez family

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