Drs. Hans and Martha Aas have an oversized suitcase filled with duct tape, medical items and other goods they'll leave in Cameroon on their latest trip to the western Africa nation this month.
But don't expect them to fill the suitcase with souvenirs to bring back to their Lakewood Township home.
"We think we have enough now," Martha Aas said earlier this week. "That's what people always do in the beginning."
It's far from the beginning for Hans and Martha Aas (pronounced Ohse), ages 72 and 74, respectively. They are leaving today for Ngaoundere, a city in northern Cameroon, on their 12th lengthy visit since 1997. Although retired from Essentia Health, they work at a hospital in Cameroon.
Along with other health professionals from the Northland, they've made numerous improvements in the Ngaoundere Protestant Hospital since Essentia Health, then SMDC, first established a relationship with it in 1999. To facilitate the relationship, they've developed an organization: the Cameroon Healthcare Development Program.
They'll spend a month this time, along with Dr. Glen Holt, 79, a retired obstetrician; Linda Finn, 63, a physical therapy assistant; and Dr. Kirsten Moore, 43, a podiatrist who will focus on wound care. One of the key focuses this time is to install a comprehensive Information Technology system. "It will be, as far as I know, the first hospital in western Africa with an advanced IT system," Hans Aas said.
Holt has traveled to Ngaoundere almost as many times as Hans and Martha Aas.
"I'd always had a yen to do some type of overseas medical work, and this was an opportunity that presented itself through the Aases," Holt said. "I recognized as soon as I went there that there was a great need in the obstetrics and gynecology department for additional help."
The hospital, known to the locals as the Norwegian hospital because it was founded by Norwegian missionaries, seems to have that effect on people.
Hans and Martha Aas, who retain the accents of their native Denmark, certainly didn't envision an ongoing relationship when they started.
After Martha Aas, a neonatologist, retired from SMDC in 1996, she looked at possibilities for overseas volunteer work. Because she is a Lutheran, she contacted Lutheran mission agencies, and Madagascar and Cameroon were suggested. She chose Cameroon.
"I thought it would be a one-time shot," she said. "I had no clue that it would be long term."
Hans Aas, a gastroenterologist, joined her for three months of volunteer medical work. At first, they knew no one in Cameroon. Because the nation had a poorly developed phone system, their only way of communicating to family and friends was via fax. At the hospital, "if we needed to talk to somebody we had to track them down," Martha Aas said.
Now, they're greeted by as many as 30 friends when they arrive in Cameroon. They can communicate by cell phone and Skype.
They've made some concessions to age. Instead of bringing several suitcases full of goods and supplies for the hospital, they bring just one in addition to their own carry-on bags. Along with Holt, they'll stay overnight in Paris to avoid back-to-back flights of eight hours and six hours. They no longer travel beyond Ngaoundere - traffic accidents are the biggest health threat in Africa, Martha Aas said.
They've learned to love a place that's far different from the Northland. Temperatures in Ngaoundere typically reach the 80s in January. The principal language is French. The people of Ngaoundere, population around 230,000, are evenly split between Muslim and Christian. The Aases say there's little conflict between the two. In fact, the great-grandfather of the present Lamido, or Muslim leader, donated the land for the hospital built by Lutherans.
And when Muslims need hospital care, they go to the Christian-owned hospital, not the government hospital, Hans Aas said.
"The government hospital has nothing in it," Martha Aas said. "There are buildings, but no equipment, hardly; beds without mattresses."
In contrast, Ngaoundere Protestant Hospital has developed into "clearly the best health-care center in northern Cameroon," Hans Aas said.
The Aases say they hope the work will continue long after them. "We're really looking for people who want to volunteer their time there," Martha Aas said.
But the Aases have led the way, Holt said.
"They're an amazing couple," Holt said. "They're both extremely talented. I call them overachievers. They're both very understated, but they go ahead and get things done."