illuminaré: “I Made A Deal With God…or So I Thought!” with Dr. Melissa Miskell
Dr. Melissa Miskell is a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist who brings holistic medical practices to the needs of men and women going through the aging process. In 2006 she became a volunteer with Prevention International: No Cervical Cancer (PINCC), dedicated to providing cancer screening services in clinics across Africa, Latin America, and India. She now leads PINCC as its executive director.
Recently, René sat down with “Dr. Melissa”, as her African patients fondly call her. They discussed her calling and the role faith and discernment, or what she refers to as “listening to God’s voice”, plays in her work. We love her heart for God and her passion for her mission!
Dr. Melissa, you’ve got such a meaningful story! Before we explore that, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
First, I’m a wife to a retired golfer and mother to three great children. I’m also a board certified OBGYN with multiple offices in Central Texas which basically means I spend a lot of time commuting! I also serve as the head of PINCC: Preventing Cervical Cancer Globally (pronounced ‘pink’), which was formally known as Prevention International: No Cervical Cancer.
Everyone has a story, what is it about yours we should know and how did it lead you to PINCC?
So my story begins when I did Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life Bible study through my church.
That study made me realize I wanted to use my medical knowledge in medical mission work. So I made this “deal” with God, which doesn’t always work out exactly how you think it will because God often has a different plan than we do! I told God I would do medical mission work but I was not going to Africa! And so that’s how this journey began.
I started looking for groups to go with. Being the narcissistic physician that I am, I just assumed everybody would automatically want me and my skills. And quickly learned that was just not the case!
Some groups wanted a letter from my pastor, others wanted letters of recommendation – things along those lines. I was a very busy OBGYN, wife and mom and at the time, delivering quite a few babies. I just didn’t have time for that. But one Austin-based site listed their phone number on their Web site. That phone number was for Bryan O’Connor, who was the leader of Central Texas Missions at that time and he said they had a group leaving in a month. He said “great, you’re on the team and we’re meeting next week at my house.” And that’s what started me on my on my medical mission work!
I traveled to Nicaragua with them four times and had loved it! After the first year, I took my oldest son with me kicking and screaming – he was 14 at the time and did NOT want to spend a week with his mother in a developing country. After that week he was in hooked. The next two years he went with me, he was saying “Mom do we have our tickets? Are going?” The experience really changed his perspective.
And so, after working with Central Texas Missions for four years, I realized that I wanted to do something that was more in my skill set. I had researched the World Health Organization protocol for doing a visual inspection with acetic acid, with the goal of diagnosing and treating pre-cancerous cervical dysplasia right then and there without electricity using cryotherapy. So during the last week of the last year I was in Nicaragua, I focused on doing cervical exams and treating dysplasia with cryotherapy.
It was awesome and I quickly realized that was my real passion. So I began looking for people who also were doing that type of work and found PINCC out of Oakland, California which was a small grassroots organization started in 2005 by Dr. Kay Taylor. She had visited Honduras and realized how pervasive cervical cancer was in developing countries and formed her own organization. So I’ve been with PINCC since then, starting with Kay, then becoming the medical director and eventually took over the organization this year. And we’re now based out of Texas, leading teams really all over the world.
That’s an amazing journey! The World Cancer Research Fund estimates that each year over half a million women are diagnosed with cervical cancer worldwide, and nearly 50% of them will not survive. Does that sound about right? How do organizations like PINCC help?
Well first, cervical cancer is much more widespread in developing countries than it is in the United States where most women are routinely screened. No one should actually die of cervical cancer in developed countries because women are screened with pap smears every one to three years depending on their specific needs.
In developing countries, pap smears are just not performed regularly for women and therefore cervical cancer is more prevalent. It’s actually the leading cause of cancer death among reproductive-age women. And of course, if the mom dies, that leaves the kids basically orphaned in developing countries because the mom is in many cases the primary caregiver and breadwinner.
So it’s vital to do “see and treat” programs which are what PINCC does, and which is aligned with the World Health Organization protocol. We go into developing countries, train healthcare workers who are primarily nurses to diagnose cervical dysplasia and treat it right then with thermocoagulation or cryotherapy, both of which are done without electricity, very mobile and can be taken anywhere.
Making matters worse, the vaccination common in developed countries like the U.S. and the U.K. for HPV (the human papillomavirus) is not widely available at all in developing countries.
Everyone who does what I do is trying to increase the availability of these vaccines. But even when they do become readily available there is still at least 20 years of work that needs to be done with the women who are already infected with HPV causing cervical dysplasia, which can lead to cervical cancer.
How did God call you to donate your time and passion to this? So many people face fears or doubts when taking such a huge leap of faith in following God’s nudge and I’m curious what yours were and how you overcame them?
It’s really interesting that one of the main reactions I often get is from people who say PINCC is not a faith-based organization. They ask how I can say it’s my “mission” or that I’m doing “mission work.” My answer to that has always been that I do what God tells me to do.
So, therefore, it is my mission because if I didn’t do it I would be miserable.
Just because PINCC isn’t a traditional faith-based program does not mean it isn’t a mission or work God wants me to do. I remember someone once asked me “God talks to you?” and I answered, “He doesn’t talk to you?” We are saving and changing lives every day, and I know it’s at God’s direction.
My biggest fear really was the thought of going to Africa. So it’s funny that even though I thought I’d made this deal with God not to go there, that’s exactly what I do now – several times a year!
And it turns out that in eastern Africa, which is Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya, English is the medical language. It’s easier for me to teach there than it is in Latin America because I’m not fluent in Spanish.
Right now PINCC is in Kenya and Tanzania with a couple of more sites opening in Kenya later this year. We’ll be going to Cambodia next year and hopefully get Latin America started again.
We always like to end our time together with a couple of questions regarding prayer, as prayer is the foundation for many Christians working for Kingdom causes and one of our favorite topics. Would you share with us an example of your prayer life?
My prayer life is a bit unique. It works really well for me because as I mentioned I drive a lot in my work. I have four office locations around Central Texas so I’m in my car at least 30-45 minutes almost every day, sometimes longer. My prayer life consists of talking to God while I’m driving.
I haven’t turned the radio on in my car in many years. My kids laugh at me about that! I recently went down to Corpus Christi when and my daughter got in the car she said: “Mom, you drove two and a half hours without the radio on?” But that’s just what works well for me. I’m by myself, it’s quiet, I can talk to God and listen to what He has to say and the direction He wants me to go.
It’s very important for me and it’s my prayer every day for my kids and my family that they make decisions which will further His purpose for their lives and for our lives.
Would you possibly share an answered prayer with our readers, specifically one unrelated to your work with PINCC?
There are actually two. The first involves a time last year when my daughter was really struggling. She was going through a lot of changes in her life and making decisions that weren’t really suited for her. And so I prayed – very hard and very intensely. I prayed she would start making decisions that were best for her, decisions made through God.
I also realized in talking to God during this time there were things I needed to change in my life that He could trust me to do and therefore would work in my daughter’s life as well. She came through that season and is closer to God and closer to me. And that meant everything to me.
The second answered prayer is in my professional life.
Last year during the same time I was praying for my daughter I was also going through a period where my business was not doing well because of insurance reimbursement issues. I was going to have to close three of my offices and let 75% of my employees go. It was such a very difficult time! Lots of prayer was involved with that as well.
Eventually, in what I would say was a massively answered prayer, a hospital system came in and offered to partner with us and they basically saved the three offices I was considering closing, allowing us to continue accepting insurance payments and not have to go to a self-pay model.
We always have a surprise question. If someone said “Dr. Melissa, your passion for PINCC had inspired me to do something more with my business or my community,” what advice or encouraging words would you pass on to that person that might help them embrace their inspiration?
I would simply say pray on it regularly and sincerely. Trust in God’s voice and know that if you have that feeling that you absolutely “must” do it, the inspiration is from God!
We want to thank Dr. Melissa for taking the time to share her story and faith.