Medicine with a Mission
With a continued burden for medical missions, Dr. Tonya Hawthorne, DO, ’83 ventured in 2006 to the country of Kenya in hopes of starting a medical outreach center. Still uncertain of the location, Tonya went on five scouting trips outside the capital city of Nairobi, each being a little further from the city and modern conveniences. During her last trip, she visited Ngoswani, a rural village of no more than five buildings. “When we drove into the village of Ngoswani, I heard a voice say, ‘You can make a difference,’” she said.
Tonya is the founder of New Frontiers Health Force (NFHF), a nonprofit organization with a vision of reaching the nations through the development of international health centers, medical outreaches and community education programs. She founded the organization in 1997 in her garage and a year later started full-time missions work. “I chose to begin my own faith-based organization to help professionals from all denominations use their medical skills to influence the lives of people around the globe,” she said.
Tonya’s desire to become a doctor developed at the age of eight. She spent the rest of her educational career working with that goal in mind. At the age of 16, she experienced a crisis of faith, which set her on the path to medical missions. “I cried out to God and I made this vow, ‘I will go anywhere you ask me, I will do anything you ask me, I will be anyone you ask me to be — but, Lord, let me impact lives,’” she said.
Originally from Rockford, Illinois, Tonya was introduced to Southeastern while attending a Jesus rally in Orlando during her senior year of high school. She applied that same week, having already sent in her application to Florida State University’s pre-med program. She prayed over her applications and placed the decision in God’s hands. “I told the Lord that whichever school accepted me first, that is where I would go,” said Tonya.
She received her acceptance letter from Southeastern first and a day later was accepted to Florida State University. Remembering the vow she made at the age of 16, she decided to enroll at Southeastern. With a heart for ministry, she majored in missions with minors in Bible and English.
“My years at Southeastern were the foundation that has kept me on the path as a career missionary physician. It was in the chapel and prayer rooms where I learned to hear God’s voice and understand His calling for my life.”“My years at Southeastern were the foundation that has kept me on the path as a career missionary physician. It was in the chapel and prayer rooms where I learned to hear God’s voice and understand His calling for my life. Without that foundation, I would have been content to just give to missions and occasionally go on a short-term trip. And, I would have missed what God destined me for in this life,” she said.
Even after graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Tonya still had an urgency to pursue medicine. She spent the next few years attending community college to finish her prerequisites for medical school. While she attended classes, she worked in a hospital as an EKG (electrocardiogram) technician. She decided to apply to Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Missouri after meeting and talking to several osteopathic physicians. She graduated from medical school in 1992 and did her residency in family medicine at Suncoast Hospital in Largo, Florida, from 1992 to 1995. After her residency, she worked as the assistant director for the Suncoast Family Practice Residency Clinic and as an emergency physician at Suncoast Hospital, as well as had a private practice in Clearwater, Florida. From 1995 to 1998, Tonya used all her vacation time and unpaid leave to go on medical mission trips.
With missions a passion in her heart, she started working full time as a medical missionary in 1998. To date, NFHF has served in 35 countries, built three clinics, done global work in disaster relief, sent millions of dollars of medical supplies and pharmaceuticals and brought the hope of God to hundreds of thousands of people. Because of Tonya’s efforts, President George W. Bush honored her with the Humanitarian of the Year award, which was created to recognize volunteers who have given at least two years and over 4,000 hours of community service.
NFHF began a transformation during one of Tonya’s many medical trips. In Liberia, Tonya encountered a life-changing experience after fracturing her foot. “This incident put me on the sidelines for a few months, where I spent time seeking the Lord about the ministry. He spoke very clearly to me that it was time for us to launch out and begin a long-term project, which is what I had purposed in my heart as a young medical intern. My goal was to build clinics around the world and have national staff cover them,” she said.
The longing she had to start a long-term project led Tonya to the community of Ngoswani in Kenya. Nine years after her initial visit, the Ngoswani Community Health Center (NCHC) stands as a thriving medical facility. It is the largest medical center that she has started. The clinic provides 24-hour care, childhood immunizations, labor and delivery, trauma, antenatal clinics, basic dentistry, laboratory, pharmacy and many other medical services. This year they are hoping to add an X-ray machine as well as an in-patient facility. NFHF also developed an additional clinic in Empaash, Kenya, which the nonprofit ran for four years before turning it over to the community.
Each member of the medical staff for NCHC is Kenya-licensed and has been university trained. The staff also gets one-on-one training with Tonya in the clinics. Tonya is a board-certified physician and has a wealth of experience in what she does, from treating tropical diseases to delivering babies. Volunteers come from America throughout the year to provide staff holiday relief, continue medical education training and teach new skills to the staff.
“We do face challenges every day. We are from a different culture. We don’t think alike, we don’t act the same and we have very different ways we self-govern; however, the most rewarding part is that I know I was created for this time, this purpose and these people. I get the privilege of caring for God’s people,” she said.
In addition to the health center, NFHF has also opened a school for the local community children near Ngoswani. Linda’s Kids Academy is run by Tonya’s teammate, Rev. Linda Brown. After a 25-year career in television working for CTN (Christian Television Network), Linda decided to join NFHF as a full-time missionary, using her passion to begin the educational program.
After the first year of Linda’s program, which started with four children, they now have 50 students enrolled. Forty-six are enrolled in the Kids Academy, and the original four are in area primary schools. Their motto is “Education Is Our Legacy.” “By educating the children, we are investing in the next generation, which will begin to change the nation from the inside out,” said Tonya.
Tonya is permanently stationed in Kenya; however, she often returns back to the states for a few months each year. While stateside, Tonya often has the opportunity to lecture in classes at Southeastern and invest in the lives of current pre-med students. In 2014, 31 years after graduating from Southeastern, she hosted her first missions team, led by Hannah (Flores) Suddreth ’15, at the medical center in Ngoswani. “The team was amazing, and I was proud to mentor these young people,” Tonya said.
As Tonya continues to bring hope to the community of Ngoswani, her advice for people desiring to follow in similar footsteps is, “Follow God with abandon. Always stay close to Him so that you can hear and discern His voice. Life will be challenging, but walk with the Lord to discover it was you He foreordained to be where you are for His purpose. I was created to be the woman I am today. I was gifted to be the physician I am today. I was allowed to be the ambassador of the King, and it’s all because of Jesus.”