Nathan Hitchcock still finds it hard to believe that he’s back in the United States, following his rather quick exit from South Sudan just a few days ago.
Violence erupted in the newly independent country Dec. 15 after an alleged coup attempt prompted unrest in the country.
An Associated Press article said the alleged leader of the rebel forces, former Vice President Riek Machar, is accused of initiating a failed coup against the government and remains a fugitive.
Marchar, a political rival of South Sudan President Salva Kiir, denies the coup, instead blaming the violence on ethnic clashes involving presidential guards.
On Friday, AP reported South Sudan agreed to end hostilities in an effort to stop the violence that had already displaced more than 120,000 people.
Hitchcock had been in Sudan since July through a medical placement with World Gospel Mission.
Receiving his nursing degree from East Tennessee State University in December 2011, Hitchcock said he was hired as an emergency room nurse at Johnson City Medical Center in January 2012.
While working at JCMC, he said he applied for nurse practitioner school at ETSU, but didn’t get in. Hitchcock said with money already saved, he contacted World Gospel Mission, a placement company that he had used for a prior mission trip to Kenya.
“I always knew that I wanted to be a missionary. I just didn’t know what way I could be of help in the mission field,” he said. “I went into medical just so I could do something more than just construction in the mission field.”
When he inquired with WGM about where nurses were needed, they said South Sudan.
Scheduled to be in the country from July 15 to Jan. 15, Hitchcock immediately was immersed into the foreign culture as he worked with In Deed and Truth Ministries in the town of Tonj in South Sudan.
A typical day for him included waking up at 7:30 a.m., doing patient rounds at 7:45 a.m., breakfast at 8 a.m., working with patients until a scheduled devotional time, breaking for lunch and then visiting with patients for the rest of the afternoon.
“Ninety percent of the cases I saw were malaria. We also had ANC, or antenatal care for mothers. We saw about 100 to 150 patients a day,” he said. “The first couple of weeks I was really scared. I had no idea what to do. I had never really dealt with women and children too much. Knowing the dosage and calculations was something that I had to work with a lot.”
He said he too felt the impact of malaria, as he contracted the disease four times while there.
Thrown into the thick of things when a missions surgery team from Kenya came to perform around 60 procedures in his compound, Hitchcock was able to assist in surgical hernia repairs, as well as the first successful caesarean section in Tonj where both the mother and the child survived.
The mother had not yet named her child when she came into the clinic for a check-up after the C-section, and Hitchcock, working with a native-speaking translator, jokingly suggested she name the child Nathan, after him.
“She comes back in a month later and I ask her, ‘What did you name your child?’ She goes, ‘Your name, Nathan,’ ” he said.
While he said his area of South Sudan was relatively quiet, some signs of mounting unrest did not go unnoticed.
“I didn’t really see too much. You did hear a lot of things though,” he said. “You’d hear just some random gunfire in the night sometimes. There were two guys that got in a fight over about 50 cents worth of cellphone air time. One guy had a grenade and blew them both up. That was, I would say, about a kilometer down the road from me, or less.”
He said cattle camp raids also started taking place, as the fighting in the country continued.
“Cows are more like money there than actual money. They’ll trade, sell cows for a lot of money,” he said. “They have these things called ‘cattle camps’ where it’s basically the bank. They keep a lot of cattle in a big, open area and men will guard them with AK-47s to protect them from raiders. If anybody tries to raid them, they will get in fights.”
He said around Dec. 13, other medical missionaries were set to leave the country to go back to the U.S. for the holidays. Signed on for his mission until Jan. 15, Hitchcock left the Tonj compound for another missions group in Nyinbuli during the holiday season.
He left Juba just one day before the violence broke out there and 500 people were killed.
On Dec. 18, word came that he needed to get out of South Sudan.
“My director said, ‘We have to get you out before anything happens. We’re afraid that a civil war may develop. We don’t know yet, but you’ve only got a month left and we don’t want you to be stuck there,’ ” Hitchcock said.
He and the other missionaries on the compound left the country Dec. 21 on a small plane. Hitchcock was forced to leave the majority of his belongings behind.
“I had a lot of sentimental things with me and I just took pictures of them and just left them behind. I left with three shirts, one pair of pants and three sets of scrubs,” he said. “It really wasn’t that hard. I figured everybody would rather have me back than my stuff back.”
He arrived home in Johnson City on Dec. 23.
“He was back for Christmas and that was the best Christmas present I could’ve gotten,” said Hitchcock’s mother, Yvette. “I missed him, but I knew he had a calling. He just follows the word of the Lord and I’m proud of him.”