Interview with Gretchen Berggren Nov 14, 2011
Marcia: Gretchen, looking back, how would you describe your life up to now?
Gretchen: Mostly, I would say it has truly been a spiritual journey. I believe that God has a plan for each life and we must search for that plan and choose to follow that plan.
Marcia: How did you discover God’s plan for your life?
Gretchen: I grew up in Nebraska, near the So.Dak./Wyoming border in a small town called Chadron. I grew up in a Church of the Nazarene in a farming and ranching community that also had Chadron State College. It was really a no-nonsense way of life. My father worked for the Chicago Northwestern Railroad; my mother was a teacher and later a principal. During WWII she became an x-ray and lab tech. My sister, younger by three years, later became a nurse, and a brother sixteen years younger became an oncologist . Some of my classmates were children from the Lakota-Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation ! I remember the discrimination against them. Every Saturday in the summer we would go to “powwows” held on Chadron’s Main street. They were great musicians; some were in the high-school band where, due to my love of music, I played clarinet. Our marching band was chosen to go to Lincoln and march in Univ. Nebr. parades.. It was an outdoor life; I even learned to ride bareback and camped with the Girl Scouts.
Somewhere between eight and eleven, I told my parents that I felt “called” to be a missionarydoctor. I was intrigued by the thought of working in a developing country; I wanted to save lives. I heard a medical missionary, Dr Evelyn Wittoff, speak about her experiences as a doctor in India during World War II. She had been on a ship that was captured by the Japanese and spent time in a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines. I was inspired by her story and corresponded with her for many years. She was my role model.
Marcia: So where did you go to college?
Gretchen: While I was still in high school, I took college courses at the local college. Studying German, I learned about Dr Albert Schweitzer and his work in Gabon, and once again was inspired. . I actually read his autobiography in German; it changed my thoughts on human suffering and taught me about “reverence for all life”. After graduation, I started at the University of Nebraska (Omaha) and graduated from their medical school, being the only female in my promotion. That’s where I met my husband, Warren Berggren.
Marcia: How exactly did you meet Warren?
Gretchen: My room-mates knew Warren and agreed that I invite him over for pie and coffee. We later got better acquainted while volunteering at the Open Door (charity) Mission in an underserved area of Omaha.
Marcia: I know you have worked and lived in many places.
Gretchen: Yes, twenty-six countries!
Marcia: Where did you start?
Gretchen: We began in the Belgian Congo. After medical school, I studied French and Tropical Medicine in Belgium, as Warren had done before he began serving in the Congo. We married in Belgium; then I went with Warren to “Institut Medical Evangelique” (IME) where he headed a program to train nurses and medical assistants. (Comment::-- After World War I, the Congo had been given to the King of Belgium. After WWII, the government of Belgium “took over” the Belgian Congo. It was a difficult situation as the seeds of rebellion were already being sown. There were no African doctors, only expatriots. Missionary doctors trained Congolese medical assistants to a very high level; some were allowed to perform surgery. We experienced great personal peace and joy working with our African colleagues in saving lives, but also saw many people die needless deaths that could have been prevented.).
We witnessed the “anti-colonialist” rebellion started in 1960; at one point 500 Belgian doctors fled within a few days. Americans were “ordered out” by our embassy and given transportation. Landing in Ghana, we learned that the US Red Cross was pleading for doctors for the Congo, when we had just been ordered out!. Later, President Kennedy himself intervened and got our group of medical professionals back to Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). Once there, with the Mennonite and Quaker leadership, we helped start the “Congo Protestant Relief Agency” that eventually brought in over 200 American doctors.
Marcia: What was that like?
Gretchen: Tough! We took over an almost abandoned Belgian Congo government hospital, still served by faithful nuns who never left their posts. Pregnant at the time, I contracted malaria. Our baby was stillborn and we buried him there. Later, on home furlough, we studied public health at Harvard and returned to the Congo (now Zaire) to set up a community health worker program. Warren became ill with pneumonia, malaria and some other illness.. Colleagues helped to evacuate us, Warren on a stretcher. Years later, in Haiti, a Haitian doctor showed up in our program and was so surprised to see Warren; he had served as a W.H.O. doctor in the Congo; had provided medicine for a “dying” missionary doctor named Warren Berggren. He said he felt he had seen a ghost!
Marcia: So then where did you and Warren go?
Gretchen: We were offered the opportunity to return to Harvard School of Public Health, where we had previously studied, in part due to the recommendation of Dr C.Everett Koop, who later became the US Surgeon General! Warren completed a second doctorate there; we both served on the faculty for many years thereafter.
Ruth, our oldest daughter was with us from the 1960’s; she actually took her first steps in the Congo. She learned to speak Lingala, an African language, along with English. Our second daughter, Jeannie, was born in the US, and with us in Haiti. Our daughters were pretty much schooled overseas; both speak several languages, and treasure what they say are “important values” from living overseas..
Marcia: So, when did Haiti come into play?
Gretchen: The Dean of Harvard School of Public Health responded to a request from Dr William Larimer Mellon, Jr., of Haiti, for someone to start community health programs at the Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti. The Dean sent us down to check it out. And that was that! Many students rotated there under our tutelage. Altogether we spent more than 20 years living and working in Haiti, with Haitian government programs as well as with US funded programs.
Marcia: I understand you worked in Tunisia, among many other places.
Gretchen: Yes, we worked on public health in rural Tunisia; I worked on a nutrition program.
Marcia: I know that you and Warren have received many awards over the years for your medical work. Which is the most memorable one?
Gretchen: I guess that would be the International Health Award that we actually received from the hands of Mother Theresa. She had won the award the previous year. It was for our work in Haiti, where, due to community based programs, we had shown significant reductions in child death rates. An award last year was very special also: At the new University of Nebraska College of Public Health, the Dean’s conference room was named after us. Former classmates and friends contributed to make this possible. Currently I am honored to be a part of the faculty of the newly accredited UC School of Public Health.
Marcia: Why are you a Rotarian?
Gretchen: The people in Rotary share my values and my commitment. I greatly respect Rotary’s goal to rid the planet of polio. Rotarians are making a difference in the world; I am proud to be one of them!