By Vernon Brewer
On a cold November day in Moscow, 1991, there was already more than two feet of snow on the ground. It was in the early months of the fall of Communism. Everywhere I turned there was poverty. The streets were dark. There were long lines for food and the stores often ran out of supplies before 10 a.m.
I had been invited to visit Cancer Hospital No.62, the leading cancer institute in Russia. I didn’t want to go at first. As a cancer survivor, the thought of seeing terminally ill patients was depressing. Reluctantly, I agreed to visit.
Nearly every patient, nurse and doctor — more than 300 total — was waiting in the large meeting room to greet me.
I had several boxes of Russian/English parallel New Testaments, which we gave each patient as a gift. The hospital officials asked me to speak to the patients and share my faith.
“I am a cancer survivor,” I said.
Many people in the room began to weep. Though they had wonderful doctors and nurses, their medical resources were almost non-existent. I looked into the faces of men and women who would surely be dead in a few months.
“Yes, I am a cancer survivor,” I told them. “But someday I will die, and so will you. Today, I have come to tell you how you can live forever.”
For the next 15 minutes, I shared my faith through an interpreter. More than 50 of the doctors, nurses and patients came to faith in Jesus Christ that day in Cancer Hospital No. 62.
After I spoke, hospital staff members took me on a tour of the hospital. I saw empty medicine cabinets and patients with no bandages to cover their wounds. I even witnessed a patient who had just received a tracheotomy. Because no surgical tubing was available, the doctors placed a used soda straw in his throat so he could breathe.
I wanted to run from this frightening sight, but I knew God had sent me here for a reason.
Dr. Mahkson, the Chief Surgeon of the hospital, gave me a list of urgent needs and asked for my help.
“I can’t promise you how much I will be able to help,” I said. “But I will help you.”
On my next visit to Moscow weeks later, I led a team with Joni Eareckson Tada. In 1967, Joni suffered a spinal cord fracture in a diving accident that left her paralyzed from the neck down. After two years of rehabilitation and determination, she dedicated her life to helping others in similar situations.
We spent the entire week visiting hospitals, orphanages and public schools. Joni presented her testimony of overcoming suffering and finding hope in life.
One night at dinner, one of Joni’s friends rolled over to my table in his wheelchair. He told me he had a friend in Tucson, Arizona who had a warehouse full of medical supplies just collecting dust.
“If I can get him to donate these to World Help, will you see that they get to Cancer Hospital No. 62?” he asked.
I immediately agreed. But shipping a container of medical supplies from the United States to Moscow would cost at least $10,000.
My first thought was, “Dear God, what have I done?” But I realized that the same God who healed me from cancer was in control of this situation too.
A few hours later, I attended the Bolshoi Ballet with Joni and her friends. At intermission, I recognized two U.S. Congressmen standing in the aisle, Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Dick Gephardt of Iowa.
I introduced myself and asked why they were in Moscow. They said they were finalizing the details of the Russian American Aid Package since the Berlin Wall had just come down.
My brain shifted into high gear.
“Congressmen, if I had a container of medical supplies that needed to be shipped from the United States to Cancer Hospital No. 62, could that be considered part of the Russian American Aid Package?” I asked.
“Of course!” they replied, and gave me the name of their liaison.
When the container arrived, doctors and nurses lined up in front of the building. While they were unloading the boxes, a surgeon ran out of the operating room, ripped open a box and grabbed a package of surgical tubing.
“I need this right now!” he said. He ran back inside and saved someone’s life.
On one of my last visits to Cancer Hospital No. 62, Dr. Mahkson took me aside and said, “At first, I did not believe in your faith. But I have seen it in action and now I accept it.”
When I began my journey with cancer, I had no idea where it would lead. I didn’t even consider God would have a completely new direction for my ministry.
But I came to realize through my ministry in Russia that God can turn tragedy into a platform to share His love and hope.
Since 1991, World Help has sent 13 containers to Cancer Hospital No. 62 with medical supplies valued at nearly $2 million.
When I thought my life was over, God was actually giving me a brand new beginning, and an incredible new ministry.
Vernon Brewer is a cancer survivor and the author of “Why? Answers to Weather the Storms of Life.” He is also the founder and CEO of World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization.