Out of Africa - Doctor, wife make safe return

August 02, 2004|EMILY BURTON

Retired local doctor Ed Montgomery, once imprisoned by police in Zimbabwe, and his wife Sara Jane returned home safely Thursday from their medical mission trip in Africa. On Saturday, they recounted their harrowing experience with friends and family at a homecoming celebration.

"A lot of people have sent us concern cards and prayers," said Dr. Montgomery.

His wife added, "It makes us really appreciate this community."

The pair had traveled to Zimbabwe last month to serve as medical missionaries in a bush hospital outside the capitol city of Harare . While seeing urology patients and performing surgery, Dr. Montgomery was arrested by police on dubious charges of practicing without being registered, though Sara Jane Montgomery, a clinical nurse, was not detained. Dr. Montgomery's passport was taken and, only after spending a night in an African jail, were charges against him dropped.

"We really don't understand why (the arrest) happened," said Dr. Montgomery.


The events of the July 5th ordeal had been sketchy at best, e-mailed to their daughter Ashley Montgomery and then passed along to a concerned network of friends.

"I think it was probably harder on her being here than in going through it, because we knew what was happening," Sara Jane Montgomery said.

Many of the emails had large sections of text missing, which at first was blamed on government censorship of out-going communications. The Montgomery's said this week that, with the collapse of Zimbabwe's infrastructure, communication networks were inherently faulty, so there could have been other reasons for the missing text.

The Montgomerys told their story among the bright wing-backed chairs of the their sunny parlor on Maple Avenue, a stark contrast from their African adventure.

Dr. Montgomery was arrested July 5

Dr. Montgomery was arrested on July 5 while practicing at a hospital in the bush outside Harare. The Montgomerys had traveled to Africa with a Lexington doctor and friend who had extensive experience working as a missionary in that country.

"There were probably 50 doctors that had come through this hospital, and none of them had been arrested," said Dr. Montgomery.

But earlier that year, the Zimbabwe government had had trouble with visitors who had entered the country claiming to be doctors but had in fact caused a lot of harm to people, Dr. Montgomery explained.

"I can understand a little bit (the government's) concern with their perception," he said.

The doctor was taken by car to the capitol by authorities but his wife declined to travel with him, afraid of what might happen if both of them were detained, she said.

During his police interrogation, Dr. Montgomery said "they made me very aware I was under their control, and would do what they wanted me to do, and I would be staying the night."

He was placed in a jail cell with dozens of other Africans. Deprived of shoes and socks, running water or food, Montgomery slept on the concrete floor on a large blanket with several others. Temperatures that night hovered in the 40s.

His wife had tried to bring him food, as the family of prisoners were responsible for providing all meals at the jail, but she arrived five minutes late and was not allowed to see him.

Luckily, said Dr. Montgomery, a white farmer was also in the jail cell and had cigarettes with him.

"Most of them were pretty decent blokes, in there for various reasons, but the cigarettes helped befriend them," Montgomery said.

After his release, they began gathering needed proof

When the doctor was released the next day after paying roughly $200 bond, the Montgomerys began gathering the needed proof of Dr. Montgomery's medical license and citizenship. With help from the U.S. Embassy and a local lawyer, the charges against him were dropped.

The pair then returned to the bush hospital to continue their work for several days before leaving the country, though Dr. Montgomery refrained from performing surgeries.

"I really enjoyed the work," Sara Jane Montgomery said emphatically. One man had waited ten years to see a urologist, she added. Some had traveled by foot or ox cart for days to see a doctor.

Dr. Montgomery said his main regret of the trip was his inability to practice for two weeks while under charges.

"Believe it or not, I'd like to go back and finish the work we had started there," he said, though it would be more comforting if the political and social status of the country was more stable.

"It just makes us realize what a wonderful country we have, where the laws help protect people," his wife said. "There, no matter what the law was, people were vulnerable to the ulterior motives of others."

And while the support, prayers and cards of concern from the local community have been greatly appreciated, Dr. Montgomery said he still felt "sad for all the people of Zimbabwe, because they're all still there..."

"...And we're not," finished Sara Jane Montgomery.

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