In 1968–69, EMAS Canada sponsored Nancy Wood’s medical student elective to a placement in the Congo. This article, which appeared in the Toronto Star on August 21, 2012, describes her 40-year journey since her EMAS mission.

Congo: a 40-year mission for Toronto doctor couple

Philip and Nancy Wood left for the Congo in 1972, young newlywed doctors going out to save lives and serve God.

The Star wrote about them then, as they were about to set out for Nyankunde, a village in the northeast of what was then Zaire. Now, they’re back in Toronto.

They trained thousands of doctors and nurses. They saw the rise and fall of governments, presidents and powerful men. They saw war waged, peace brokered. They fled conflict, survived a massacre. They lost a son. They stayed, on and off, for 40 years. And they’re going back again.

The central African country that wraps around the Congo River gained independence in 1960 after a torturous period under Belgian control. Before that, known as Belgian Congo, it was a personal fiefdom of King Leopold II, who used mass amputations and massacres to control his “subjects” while pilfering the massive country (about two-thirds the size of western Europe) of its ample resources.

“That is the place where God is calling us,” Nancy said then, when she was a 26-year-old intern at Toronto General Hospital.

She had been to central Africa, working in Uganda—the pearl of Africa in those days, complete with glass windows and Singer sewing machine shops—and visiting Congo in 1968. When she told staff at the medical centre that she would be back, they replied, “Nobody comes back here.”

She did.

Philip and Nancy were married on Aug. 5, 1972, at Little Trinity Anglican Church on King St. E. Shortly after, they sailed for Europe, where they spent nine months in orientation, and studying French and tropical medicine. They celebrated their first wedding anniversary in Kinshasa, before heading inland 2,000 kilometres to Nyankunde. The village of 17,000 people, nestled in the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains, is home to the Centre Médical Évangélique.

In the 250-bed hospital, Philip, who’s British, was director and surgeon, Nancy the family physician. They took care of patients and trained nurses and doctors.

The Woods stayed in Nyankunde for 14 years. Their eldest son, Jeremy, was born in the hospital. In 1979, Nancy had another baby. Nine weeks premature, the boy died within an hour.

“We had no oxygen, we had no incubator, we had no respirator. Personally, I think if we had oxygen, he would have survived. But we didn’t have those things in 1979 and he died,” Nancy said. The experience, she said, helped her identify more closely with the local women, who suffer some of the world’s worst rates of maternal and infant mortality.

“It was very sad at the time, but I’ve come to see the blessings that have come out of living through that experience,” she said. Their third child, Timothy, was born in Toronto.

In 1987, they moved to Liberia, on the west coast of Africa, where better schooling would be available for their sons. But in 1989, then-rebel leader Charles Taylor invaded northeast Liberia on Christmas Eve, launching what would become a 14-year civil war that killed an estimated 250,000 people.

The Wood family was evacuated and returned to Ontario, settling in Hamilton for 12 years and running the Canadian office of WEC (Worldwide Evangelization for Christ) International, a multi-denominational organization that, together with various international donors and organizations, supported their work in Congo.

In 2002, sons grown and off to university, Philip and Nancy returned to Africa, arriving in Nyankunde in April. War had been through the region several times over the years—resulting in the ouster of long-time President Mobutu Sese Seko and the nation’s renaming to Democratic Republic of Congo—but the hospital had never been touched.

Then, on Sept. 5, there was a massacre.

Nancy was away, back in Canada for her mother’s 90th birthday. Philip got up in the morning and did the rounds at the hospital. Staff told him they weren’t ready to begin the day’s surgeries, so he went home to have a coffee. At 9 a.m., soldiers began pouring over the hillsides, shooting.

Philip hid in the house with some neighbours. They drew the curtains and locked the doors. At 11:30 a.m., there was banging on the door.

Philip looked out the window and saw three rebels there, wearing grass in their hair—believed to make one invincible—and bandoliers of bullets, carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. They yelled at him to open the door. When he refused, they threatened to kick it down. They demanded money.

“I said, ‘I can pray for you.’ So I stood at the window and I closed my eyes and prayed a very long prayer with a hand in the air. And they went away and didn’t come back again.”

Philip and 20 others were evacuated the following day. He walked to the airstrip, seeing bodies everywhere. Rebels had killed hundreds of people in the hospital. They’d lured some who had been hiding in the ceiling with promises of safety, only to slaughter them as soon as they came out.

An estimated 1,500 people died that day.

Philip was flown to Entebbe, Uganda, and later to Britain, where he met up with Nancy to plan their next move.

The remaining hospital staff walked 50 kilometres to another village called Oicha, where they set up a refugee camp. Philip and Nancy had offers to go other places—Ghana, Chad, Angola, Niger. But their hearts were still in Congo. In October 2002, Philip and Nancy joined their colleagues at Oicha.

They worked there for several years before moving to Bunia, about 45 kilometres from Nyankunde, to help set up a college and hospital in an old hotel.

“I operated in the bar,” said Philip, with a laugh. “Intensive care had been a drinking lounge.”

The Woods are back in Toronto for a few months to satisfy OHIP requirements. They plan to return to DRC early next year for several months.

“We needed a break. We are of retirement age now,” said Nancy, who’s nearly 67. Philip is almost 70. “So this is perhaps official retirement from full-time medical work in Congo, and when we’ve had our OHIP-enforced break, we will see what length of short-term medical work we can do.”

After holding disputed, but relatively peaceful, elections last year, DRC remains at the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index. The overall humanitarian situation in the country has improved little over the four decades the Woods worked there.

April saw the emergence of a new rebel faction known as M23 that’s making a rapid advance through the eastern DRC. The renewed fighting has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and those in Bunia are afraid the instability will spread.

The expatriate community, once so vibrant in eastern DRC, is almost nonexistent now, said Philip. Congolese doctors and nurses, many trained by Philip and Nancy, have filled the gaps left behind as best they can. “But the need is still very great,” said Philip.