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After 20 years, Nigeria is still Whittakers’ calling

Dr. Robert Whittaker described the events of Aug. 12 as “an NCH special.” The power was out, and the standby generator wasn’t working. Neither was the standby for the standby generator. That left the staff of NCH — Nigerian Christian Hospital — in the dark.

“We were down to a car battery lamp and a cave explorer’s headlight running off double-A batteries,” Whittaker said. “What a mess.”

Then a church member working in the maternity ward said that she had two patients in need of Caesarean section. Whittaker remembered a “small, putt-putt generator” he had bought for use in the field. It had developed a gas leak that needed fixing, but there was no time.

“Surprisingly it didn’t leak fuel,” he said. “I carried it to the O.R. and set it up, warning them that it would only carry one light and a fan. However, it was enough and I did the two ops and a third small case.”

Improvisation is nothing new for Whittaker and his wife, Annette. The couple works long hours at NCH, near Port Harcourt in the west African nation of Nigeria. Whittaker and fellow physician Chisara Umezurike are “preaching doctors” at the 110-bed hospital, where the physicians perform hundreds of operations and deliver about 730 babies annually.
This is Robert Whittaker’s 20th year serving the people of Nigeria, but his story begins far from Africa — on the Brittish Isles. He was born in 1947 in rural North Wales, United Kingdom, on a farm adjacent to the birthplace of T. E. Lawrence, later known as Lawrence of Arabia.

At age 21 Whittaker was admitted to the Welsh National Medical School in Cardiff. He began following the teachings of Hindu mystics, meditating and fasting. He later wrote that, at the time, he knew he would soon be dealing with people in life-or-death situations, so he felt the need to base his life on a solid faith.

One day, while bicycling, Whittaker saw a flyer in the back window of a van advertising “Brother Winstanley’s Evangelistic Meeting.” The young, spiritual seeker cycled to the site of the meeting.

The minister hosting the meeting, Albert Winstanley, once worked as a hospital porter to support his own preaching. With a command of scripture matched only by his encyclopedic knowledge of hymns, Winstanley helped launch congregations across the United Kingdom before his death earlier this year.

On the day Robert Whittaker visited his meeting, Winstanley preached on the conversion of the Apostle Paul. The young medical student responded to the invitation and was baptized – only hours after he first encountered the phrase “church of Christ.”

When Whittaker graduated in 1973, the caption under his yearbook photo was a testament to his new focus: “His strength is as the strength of 10 because his heart is pure.”

Whittaker went to Nigeria in 1975 after reading an article by Dr. Henry Farrar in the church publication Firm Foundation, encouraging physicians to spend vacation time at NCH. The West End church, Nashville, Tenn., sent Farrar to serve as the first located doctor at NCH in 1964.

After two years of volunteering, Whittaker decided to prepare for longer work in Africa. He continued to practice and train in England, and was admitted to the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. In 1985 he returned to Nigeria to heal, preach and become Farrar’s successor.

A few years later, at a missionary workshop in Abilene, Texas, Whittaker encountered a Christian whose education, odyssey of faith and love for missions mirrored his own.

Annette Lumbleau, born in Hollywood Calif., had served in the United States Peace Corps as a teacher, and held a Master of Business Administration from the University of Kentucky. She met missionaries from churches of Christ while serving in Kenya. Later she was baptized in Indiana.

Whittaker visited Lumbleau in Tanzania, where she was teaching in a Christian school at another church-supported ministry, Chimala Mission Hospital. She later visited him in Nigeria, and Wendell Broom, veteran missionary to Africa, married the couple in the chapel at NCH.

The Whittakers have been married for 12 years and have one son, Ozioma, whose name means “good news” in the local language of Igbo.

“Annette is one of the most efficient and dedicated Christians you will ever meet,” Farrar said. She established an elementary school near NCH, raising much of funds herself and overseeing construction.

She’s also overseen construction of a small factory that produces “Salvation Nets” – mosquito nets treated with insecticide. The factory employs Nigerian Christian women to make the nets, which reduce the risk of malaria, a constant health threat in the region. Local ministers sell the nets in their villages and make a small profit to support their work. The Nigerian government has recognized Annette Whittaker for her initiative.

Like his wife, Robert Whittaker constantly seeks new ways to minister to the people around him, said Glenn Boyd, director of the International Health Care Foundation, which sponsors missions hospitals and clinics around the globe.

“His current love is eye surgery,” Boyd said. Whittaker recently trained in catarac surgery and ocular implants at the German Mission for the Blind in Kano, Nigeria. “He is so excited about this because there are so few ophthalmologists available in Nigeria. Bob likes to load up the car and go to villages with preachers. They preach and he does eye clinics.”

Charles Branch, a member of IHCF’s board of directors, said that the Whittakers exemplify “the very finest Christian characteristics in their professional and personal lives.”

“They always give unselfishly of themselves in caring for the sick and needy and in the furtherance of Christ’s kingdom here on earth,” Branch said.

To that end, the Whittakers try to pass along their own sense of mission to those they encounter, as exemplified by a recent patient suffering from a twisted and infected region in his intestines.

Whittaker and another physician at NCH operated and watched the man’s remarkable recovery. “I told the patient, ‘You could have easily died from the illness … but God has been merciful to you and spared your life — and now your task is to find out what God’s purpose is for your life,’” Whittaker said.

Filed under: International

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