Standing on Holy Ground

Director of Clinical Education Greg Ekbom is no stranger to grief and pain, preparing and perhaps uniquely qualifying him for a lifelong assignment: bringing hope to the world’s forgotten.  

By Jenny Hudalla '15, senior content specialist

June 11, 2019 | 10:30 a.m.

Earn your master of science in physician assistant at Bethel University.

Director of Clinical Education Greg Ekbom (right) and his son, Doug (left), traveled to Chogoria, Kenya, in January to help restore mobility and hope in the lives of Kenyan amputees.

His knees hit the grass with a dull thud. Head bowed before his wife’s brand-new grave, Greg Ekbom ’71 had room for nothing but despair. In his grief, the retired surgeon asked God to give him cancer, a heart attack, anything that would bring him home.

But God didn’t. Because, as Ekbom has come to realize, his assignment wasn’t over. Now the director of clinical education for Bethel’s physician assistant program, he’s spent the years since his wife’s death in 2011 realizing the future they had dreamed of together. “I think about it every day,” says Ekbom, glancing around his office at photos of the hundreds of students he has mentored. “God has given me the opportunity to do what my wife, Eva ’70, and I always pictured—make a difference in the lives of young people.”

Through countless clinic and hospital visits, office chats, and Starbucks runs, Ekbom has worked to leave a legacy in the lives of Bethel studentswhom he says have become like sons and daughtersand in the lives of people around the world. He’s been on eight short-term medical mission trips, teaching and mentoring the next generation of healthcare professionals in Kenya, Indonesia, Ghana, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Last year, after landing in Chicago at the end of another trip to Kenya, Ekbom got a voicemail that brought the anguish he felt after his wife’s death right back to the surface. His son, Doug ’07, had been admitted two weeks previously to Regions Hospital in St. Paul with a blood clot that had completely blocked his main abdominal aorta, resulting in no blood flow to his lower body. By the time Ekbom arrived at the hospital, Doug had already had emergency surgery and was in critical condition.

After signing a do-not-resuscitate form at the request of Doug’s doctors—a painful reminder of the trauma of years past—Ekbom eventually went home and tried to sleep, tossing and turning through nightmares only to wake up and realize they had become his reality. “I cried out, ‘Lord, come into my nightmare,’” he remembers. “And He did, placing Isaiah 26:3–4 on my heart.”

“You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal.”

— Isaiah 26:3–4

Doug made it through the ordeal, but his legs didn’t. As a bilateral amputee from the knee down, Doug moved into his father’s basement and spent the next few months hoisting himself backward up the stairs and crawling through the kitchen. He began a grueling rehabilitation process and was eventually fitted with state-of-the-art prosthetics, learning again how to walk and, eventually, play golf. Less than a year after his son’s surgery, Ekbom returned to Kenya—and this time, Doug went with him.

Having connected with a nonprofit manufacturer of prosthetics a few months earlier, the Ekboms planned to fit Kenyan amputees with new limbs and give them the same renewed mobility Doug had found. They arrived at the hospital in Chogoria, Kenya—a town sustained mostly by agriculture—to find hundreds of patients waiting outside. Unsafe farming machines, along with high rates of interpersonal violence and traffic accidents, have left many people with life-altering injuries—but, according to Ekbom, less than 10% of amputees in developing countries have access to basic prosthetics. “When you lose a limb in Kenya, your life is in some ways over,” Ekbom says. “You rarely leave the house. You become one of the forgotten.” 

That was the case for a man named Leonard, who had a wife, five children, and a good job. Then he accidentally touched a power line while installing a television antenna and lost both arms. Because he was no longer able to provide for his family, his wife took the children and left. If it weren’t for a friend who took Leonard in and helped feed, clothe, and bathe him, he might not have made it. “If he were the only patient we had seen, the whole trip would have been worth it,” says Ekbom, who, after fitting Leonard’s prosthetics, watched him joyfully raise his new arms to praise Jesus. “In that moment, I knew we were on holy ground.”

Over the course of three weeks, the Ekboms fitted more than 100 amputees with prosthetics and heard scores of devastating stories. One woman had lost both arms because of her husband’s drunken violence. Another had to travel more than 500 miles to receive care. But, through their own experience with despair, the father-son duo shared with each patient a counternarrative—one that meant their lives were not over. “I’m humbled and overwhelmed by being part of God’s plan to bring healing and restoration and build His kingdom on Earth,” Ekbom says. “I have personally known darkness and brokenness and pain. I can see how, in a way, the suffering I went through prepared the way for me to give others some hope.”

Because of those trials, Ekbom says his faith is deeper and his confidence is higher. He hopes to design a global health delivery course for undergraduate and graduate students before retiring in December—a move that will give him more time to support and educate providers in high-risk, high-need countries. He and Doug are already planning trips to Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they’ll deliver more prosthetics and continue to share their story of healing.

Still, Ekbom knows his deep roots at Bethel—where he spent some of his most formative years, met his wife, and established meaningful relationships with students and colleagues—will make it hard to say goodbye. “Bethel has prepared me for my life’s ministry,” he says. “It was there at the beginning and now it has equipped me for what’s next. One of the great opportunities we have as healthcare providers is to be purveyors of hope, even when things feel hopeless. That’s the assignment God has given me—and I’m not finished yet.”


Editor's note: Shortly after this article was published, Doug Ekbom died on July 2. His father plans to continue their work through the Doug Ekbom Foundation, which was created with the mission of providing support, encouragement, and resources for amputee patients in developing countries.  
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