David Stevens – Global Medical Mission Pioneer

“The way you get into medical school is – you go to the library when everybody else goes to the ballgame. That’s how you get into medical school. It’s not the smartest ones. Oftentimes it’s the ones that are most determined and have the discipline to do it.” -David Stevens

[00:00:00] David Stevens: For the next year and a half, I was in Somalia during Black Hawk Down leading medical teams. Only place I’ve done medical work or had ten guys with AK 47’s guarding our team all the time.

We saw 45,000 outpatients in the midst of famine and disease and war, and then into the Sudan epidemic, relapsing fever, living in tents. Our camp got overrun. The village where we were by another tribe. We had our team held hostage.

[00:00:26] Tommy Thomas: Our guest today is Dr. David Stevens. Dr. Stevens has enjoyed a distinguished career in medical missions in Kenya before making the transition to nonprofit leadership. First with Samaritan’s Purse, and then as CEO of the Christian Medical and Dental Association. For the past 30 years, I’ve made my living, helping nonprofit organizations find senior leaders. 

JobfitMatters has worked with over 300 nonprofits in finding their CEO, the executive director, headmaster or whatever they call the top leadership role. One thing I learned over the years is that you can get a good picture of how a person leads by listening to the stories of their lives. The narrative of a person’s life is powerful. 

As you listen to this conversation with Dr. Stevens, imagine that you’re on a search committee, looking for the next CEO for your nonprofit. My hunch is that you would leave this podcast knowing what the Office of the President or Executive Director would look like under Dr. Steven’s leadership. 

Let’s pick up the conversation now. Before we go too deep into your professional career, take us back to your childhood.  I’m always curious about people got their start.

[00:01:48] David Stevens: Mine was a little bit unusual. My father was a pastor for a couple of years and then went into full-time evangelism back in the early 50s.  So, for a couple of years of my life, we were living in a house trailer, parked at the little churches in the country where he was preaching revivals before we settled in Wilmore, Kentucky where my mom and dad had both gone to school. But even after that, during the summer, we used to travel with him and to camp meetings all across the United States.

So it was a little different childhood than most kids have. It was wonderful. How many kids in the 50s, early 60s would go to all kinds of historical spots that were in the area between meetings and have that much concentrated time with their parents? And I was in a children’s program all summer long and different camp meetings.

It was a wonderful time and a time when we could be together with dad, because he’s on the road a lot during the year. 

[00:02:40] Tommy Thomas: What is the most memorable or valuable lesson you learned from your parents? 

David Stevens: Their love for God and their love for people. And I just saw that some of the memories that I treasure are sitting in a camp meeting and watching people go forward to the old-fashioned altar and pray.

In fact, it was in one of those camp meetings where dad was preaching in Pennsylvania when I was eight, that I went down a sawdust trail to a two by four altar and got on my knees and accepted Christ, realizing it wasn’t enough. My dad was the evangelist. I needed a personal relationship with Christ.

So, it really impacted my life and the memories that we treasure. Not just me, but my brother and sister as well.

[00:03:18] Tommy Thomas:  Y’all traveled the United States a bit. Looking back, what was your favorite place?

[00:03:21] David Stevens: Oh boy, that’s a hard question because some of it’s a blur.

We went back to camp meetings more than once and I did this until I started high school. It was quite a few years and it was just a special time beccause we got to be with dad. He’d be gone for a week, 10 days home for a few days between meetings and then off again. And we always treasure those times with mom and dad. And mom was teaching school full-time and had three kids.

I don’t know how she did it, but I treasure those memories. Just the fun things we did. Dad was a history major, and I remember one time we were going down the road and he saw a sign that there was a grave for one of the presidents and he pulled off with the house trailer behind us into the cemetery.

And we’re sitting there and he looks down and there’s a building and somebody’s over there and he walks over and starts talking to him. He was gregarious and loved people, and a few minutes later he motions us all to come over. It was the crematorium. We got a tour of the crematorium. I can still remember the bones in the boxes as we went in.

You’d never do that in this day and time, but my dad made friends quickly. 

[00:04:32] Tommy Thomas: What is something that people are always surprised to find out about you?

[00:04:35] David Stevens: That’s a good question. I love to sing and I’ve been in a number of choirs that goes clear back to my high school days and some of my hobbies people are surprised at.

I love to fly fish for trout. We’ve got great trout fishing here. And then I also love to flower garden. And when you work with people as you have Tommy, it’s never done. And I like to do house projects and things like that and finished off part of our house after we moved in.

But I love doing things with my hands because, but when you’re done, it’s done. It’s finished. It’s, it’s not a project in process forever like it is as you’re dealing with. 

[00:05:14] Tommy Thomas: I tell people that my work doesn’t have an immediate impact. And so I’m like you, I love to cut grass because I can see what’s ahead of me. I can see what’s behind me and I can know what I’m through. 

[00:05:29] Tommy Thomas: Take me into high school.  Did y’all settle down some in high school?

[00:05:32] David Stevens: I had an interesting high school experience, Tommy, because my sister and my brother and I all went off to boarding school here in the United States. I went to Hampton Dubose Academy down in Florida. It was a Christian boarding school too, of Billy Graham’s. His daughters went there. The boys didn’t.

[00:05:47] David Stevens: Jack Wertzen and other names that people would know. It was a class of, the school had about 150 students. It was a great experience. I ended up being much more mature than other students when I got to college because I lived away from home, actually came home and lived at home for college and went to Asbury.

But everybody had to do everything. Everybody had to participate in every sport. Everybody was in choir, everybody did public speaking. Every year we had a competition where you had to memorize a speech, give it in front of the whole student body, and be judged on it. And you look back on those things and we, all of us had worksheet jobs.

My wife still says I can cut vegetables better than she can because I used to cut vegetables for 150 kids when I was on kitchen duty or washing dishes or waiting tables. And then we just had tremendous spiritual ministry. We had chapel in the morning, vespers at night, every day, services three times on Sunday during the snowbird season and some top-notch evangelists and speakers from all over the country for that.

I learned much more than just getting a good education. But that’s where I fell in love with science and Mr. Gladfelder, my science teacher.  God used that during my last year of high school to call me into medical missions. My dad, when I was a freshman, he was in evangelism as I mentioned, but in the mid-60s he went on a short-term mission team, which was pretty unusual back then and I saw the impact of that on people’s lives and started spending half his time with an organization that he started called Now Go International to take people overseas.

And he took me as a freshman in high school down to Haiti. And while I was there, I started painting, I think somebody’s house, and probably not very well, but there was a building down at the end of the compound. And people lined up around and went down. There was a nurse diagnosing and treating people lined up around the building.

I didn’t have a chance to talk to her, but every once in a while, I saw her get up and go in the other room. And one time she left the door cracked in there. She was down on her knees praying with someone. And God used that experience and my love for science to call me into medical missions as a senior in high school.

Back in those days you were supposed to know what you were going to major in when you got to college, which is pretty unusual in this day and time. So what was Asbury like, and then what was how was medical school different? Asbury was wonderful. I lived at home, that’s where I met my wife, Jody, my junior year, in her freshman year.

My freshman year is probably the most memorable in one way. And that is, that was 1970, the Asbury revival. We’ve been talking the last few weeks about what’s been going on there now, and I was sitting up in the balcony in the freshman section and they just had a testimony service where students shared and God just came into that place and it was palpable.

You could feel it and that didn’t finish for over a week. And I was already committed to medical missions, talking about it. And people knew what I was planning to do. But it was that morning when I went down to the altar that I just completely surrendered my heart to the Lord.

I loved him, but I was still driving the car of my life and I took him everywhere I went. But that day, I wanted Him to drive.  And I still remember that commitment. It’s been very fresh in the last few weeks as I’ve heard about what’s going on up there. All three of my kids went there.

I was involved in the school and the board. Yeah, a lot of great memories of those years there.

[00:09:09] Tommy Thomas: Was medical school hard for you or did you just fall into it? 

[00:09:10] David Stevens: Medical school’s hard for everyone.  In fact, I deal with a lot, ahead of working with medical students across the country.

A lot of people, pre-meds and stuff, say, how do you get into medical school? Because it’s hard.

I say the way you get into medical school is you go to the library when everybody else goes to the ballgame. That’s how you get into medical school. It’s not the smartest ones. Oftentimes it’s the ones that are most determined and have the discipline to do it.

And medical school, is that on steroids? I remember in my biochemistry course we covered in the first two weeks what I’d learned the year before, and my biochemistry class was taught by a former teacher in a medical school here at Asbury. So it’s tough. You’re very focused. You’re realizing that you’re going to have people’s lives in your hand.

You get into your clinical years, and it’s not only days, but you’re working nights too. You’re up all day. Up all night and up all the next day taking care of patients. That’s not as common anymore. But that was the way back in those days. And I was determined to learn as much as possible. Because during college, after my junior year, I went and spent two months in Kenya.

My dad knew Dr. Ernie Stuart, the founder of Tenwek Hospital, and he said, out of all of the missionary doctors, I know he’s the finest. And I went and spent two months with him and lived in his house and followed him around like a puppy. And he taught me how to pass instruments to him in surgery. And I delivered my first baby as a college student.

Came home and actually went to the mission and got a preliminary appointment with World Gospel Mission to head overseas as soon as we finished our training, a preliminary appointment. We knew where we were going to medical school. And after my third year, went back for two months beginning my fourth year.

Took my wife Jodi, who had never been there. And we were essentially missionaries that summer. And I got so far ahead of other medical students by the time I went to residency because they had handed me an award with 40 patients on it that I was the doctor, even though I was just in my fourth year of medical school.

They were so short-staffed, and I had even learned how to do C-sections and take care of stuff that most medical students never got to do, even back in that time and especially now. So that helped me focus. I always believe that you have to throw wood on the fire of your call, and you do that, especially with long years of training by going back.

When I went back again, during my last year of residency, so I graduated medical school and worked hard, graduated in the top 5% of my class, and then started residency. And that was a big decision. I loved surgery. I didn’t particularly like some of the surgeons I had to work with in medical school.

Some of them, you’d turn around and walk down another hallway if you saw them coming. They were so rough and tough. But I ended up going to a family practice residency because I was going to have to do everything you have to do. Every kind of medicine on the mission field, there’s nobody to refer to. And so I went to a program in Columbus, Georgia which had 40 residents.

About half of them were Christians, evangelical Christians, which was wonderful. One of our faculty attracted them there. It was just a great school. We were the only residents in a tertiary care hospital, 500-bed hospital, and did everything, ran the burn units, the ICU, everything.

It was great training. I knew I was not going to have an office practice. I didn’t have to take care of really sick people. And that was the residency I was looking for. So those were a great three years, and we had our first two children there and then headed off to the mission field.

[00:12:28] Tommy Thomas:  What do you remember about the first time that you actually had a medical staff reporting to you? 

[00:12:45] David Stevens: It’s interesting. I was chief resident of those 40 residents. During my third year, one of them was in charge. It turned out to be a lot more complicated than I thought it was going to be about halfway through the year.

I came into work on Monday morning and everything was in a fever, and here they had brought in a for-profit administration for this city hospital. And they had fired the Director of the Family Practice Program. Now, this is, in my opinion, one of the best, if not the best family practice program in the southeast and maybe in the United States.

Back then, it was just fabulous, and residents were starting to get on the phone, calling and looking for other residencies they could go to. They were going to leave and the whole thing was just going to fall apart. And so, I had a quick prayer and called the residents together and said we can fight this.

Back in those days, if they didn’t like you, they fired you.  Even as a resident – they just throw you out and because you’re a paid resident. So I wrote a letter to all the attendings in the community, of course, didn’t sign it, in case it fell under the wrong hands, explaining what was happening and letting them know if something didn’t change, they were going to have to be taking care of all of their patients at night because there’d be no residents in the hospital to do it.

And then I contacted the paper and made sure they didn’t use my name, so I didn’t get fired. And that happened on Monday. Sent the residents out, each one to a number of the local attending physicians that had patients in the hospital and hand delivered the letters to them. Friday, they had a meeting called with the doctors, and everybody was in a fur.

And the doctors said, listen, if you don’t change that decision Monday, there’ll be no patients in this hospital. Now I didn’t plan that. I didn’t expect that, but that made a huge difference. And that was where I had leadership, that was one of those pivotal points in a leadership situation where you’re in a crisis and then jumped in very quickly.

When I got to the hospital, we did language school. Within my first year Dr. Stewart asked me to be the medical superintendent, so that meant I was in charge of all the medical staff in the hospital. He was the CEO, but I had the direct supervision and we had at that time probably 300 staff.  We had a national administrator, but I dealt with all the medical issues and problems like that.

So, I jumped in pretty quickly and found out that I had skills and abilities, and interests that I really didn’t know I’d have in the whole area of leadership and administration.  

[00:15:06] Tommy Thomas: Thinking back over the life of your career – what was the most ambitious project you’ve ever tackled?

[00:15:11] David Stevens: I’ve had a lot of them, but I think the biggest one was actually the first one at Tenwek. When we arrived, I was the third physician. We only had six trained nurses. Five of them were missionaries. Everybody else were just local people. We had trained to clean floors or pass medicines out, and half the patients in the hospital were there with preventable diseases and half the deaths were from preventable diseases.

The biggest killer in Africa is the water is not clean.

Measles, tetanus, whooping cough – things that we immunize for. The biggest killer in Africa is the water is not clean. They drink it, get diarrhea, and vomiting. Kids come in severely dehydrated. We were averaging 180% occupancy for the year and there were two to three patients in a bed, and every patient had a family member staying with them since we didn’t have good nursing staff to help take care of them.

We had over 200 patients and it was challenging. After about a year and a half, Dr. Stewart turned to me and said, David, one of our nurses that was on furlough, she has come back, and she wants to do something in community health. Can you help her start a community health outreach?

We sat down and started thinking about this.  Our catchment area at that time was 300,000 people and a very rural area,

50 miles from the nearest paved road. And I thought there are no billboards, there’s no radio, there are no magazines. The only way to reach these people is door-to-door.

[00:16:32] David Stevens: How do you get that? You couldn’t hire enough people or have enough money to have them go out and do the teaching. So we essentially went out in the community and mobilized them to start a community health committee in a village. And we go out and train this group and we used inductive training where you ask questions and help them find the answers.

[00:16:53] David Stevens: And after we got them trained, then we asked them to pick seven people from their community who would give three half days a week to go teach in their community. 

And we called them Community Health Helpers because workers get paid, you aren’t gonna get paid.

And so we built that program and at the time I left in 1991, we had already taught 400,000 people 25 different interventions that they could teach about, treating the 10 most common diseases and sharing the gospel. 

We had as many as 10,000 people a year come to Christ through this door-to-door evangelism. I used to tell the health helpers, I said, the best place to share the gospel is when you’re helping somebody dig their latrine.

And they ask you, why in the world are you doing this? Because you’ve got a farm, you’re busy, you’ve got things you need to do, and you shared the love of Christ. That’s a great place to introduce people to Jesus. And that program grew. I applied a bunch of motivational techniques. A good book on that was In Search of Excellence, looking at the top 10 companies in the United States, how they motivated their people, and what I did, selling books door-to-door when I was in college for two summers with Southwestern Family Bibles and native topical references. I still have on the wall in my office, my Gold Award for working 75 hours a week, knocking on doors, dogs chasing you.

And I thought, how did they motivate me as a medical student, as a college student when I didn’t even receive a salary? I was working on commission to work as hard as I did, and I was one of the Top 20 salesmen in the country. God never wastes anything. And he took that and we were motivated by giving a sense of identity to the people.

People knew who they were and what they were doing, and thought it was important. Secondly, by great communication, not just up and down, but vertically and horizontally, among groups and creating a non-threatening comparison. We printed a newspaper, mimeographed it off, and everybody’s work was in there and nobody said anything about them, but they could tell if you were working, or you weren’t working and how your committee was doing compared to other committees.

People always wanted to know how they fit in, competitions where individuals could win or people would meet a certain level and get rewards, then creating a sense of family. And it was extremely successful. Within three years we had a USAID grant. The Ambassador was visiting.  By the time I left, we’d had people from 24 different countries come in and see that program.

And then we went to the next step and started with community development, which impacted the men versus just impacting women and children and teaching them how to have income because there was less and less land for people and they didn’t have enough. They could support their families, men go to the city, try to get a job, end up in Islam, frequent a prostitute, bring AIDS home, give it to their wife.

These were medical issues all with the fact that how do you make money and support your family when you only have five or six acres of land? So how do you increase milk production and egg production and clean water and better agriculture and all sorts of stuff that I’d never done but I just dived in and learned.

So that was a huge project that I was doing while still working full-time in the hospital in the last four or five years that I was at Tenwek, I was the Acting CEO as well, running the whole place. So a very busy time, but yeah, changed a lot of lives and that’s still going on today. I was just back in June.

It’s now up to 1.5 million people and their 1,500 health helpers in the country. Doing this type of thing still, 25-30 years later. 

[00:20:21] Tommy Thomas: How did you go from that to your most recent assignment at Christian Medical and Dental Associations?

[00:20:26] David Stevens: We thought we were going to be missionaries the rest of our life.

During my time there Dr. Stewart got colon cancer and went home.  He put me in charge of the hospital. And so many of the other issues that need to be dealt with was, we need electricity. We had electricity 11 hours a day, people died all the time for lack of electricity.  And it took a quarter of the budget just to run a diesel generator, 11 hours a day. 

So we built a hydroelectric project on the river, and that’s God’s story of how He brought in the experts we needed and we did it ourselves. And it was like building the pyramids. We broke all the gravel for a huge dam by hand because the roads were so bad we couldn’t even get trucks in.

And then we started a nursing school. So we’d have nurses and took the hospital up to 300 beds and buildings and new outpatients, new business offices, all sorts of things that got involved in during the last four or five years that I was there and leadership. And we thought we’d be there for the rest of our lives.

And then God, just that last year, I have had a growing realization that God had something else in hand and I didn’t want to hear it. We came home on deputation in 1989 and I thought, you’ve just been working too hard managing all this stuff and still seeing patients. You’re a little burned out.  You’ll get over it and it wouldn’t go away.

And finally, I was going down to North Carolina to speak and I thought, we had a relationship with Samaritan’s Purse. I knew Franklin and they had helped us with visiting doctors to help for a month. And I thought, what can God bring? Maybe God wants you to take what you’ve done at Tenwek and help other mission hospitals.

So I dropped by and I told Jodi if I get in there and the Head of Rural Medical Mission, their medical arm and Franklin are in the same room, I’m going to bring this up. And I had been there five minutes and I was in the room with him, and I said would you have an interest?

Franklin was very enthusiastic, and I was backing up by saying after the next term, that type of thing, didn’t give him any kind of answer. Before I left, he called me, he said, I want you to be the head of World Medical Missions, which is their medical arm working with Mission Hospitals around the world.

And I said, I’m back due back in Kenya in two days. I’ll let you know something by Christmas. This was June. And it got close to Christmas. We hadn’t even prayed about it.  In December, I started to pray.  I just couldn’t get any direction and wrote a letter to Franklin and said, no, I’m not coming.

[00:22:44] And Dr. Stewart had medical problems, colon cancer, I was the next leader already in that leadership position. Probably had the two worst weeks of my life. Because I knew I hadn’t waited on the Lord. And Molly had turned to Jodi and said, it’s too late. I just got too busy.

I should have taken more time. We should have taken more time praying about this. And I said, the only thing that could happen is Franklin just writes me a note and says, the job’s here whenever you want to come. Two weeks later I got a letter – job’s here whenever you want to come. We went back to our knees, prayed for a month, and realized that’s what God wanted us to do.

So, I came to World Medical Missions. The first year I was flying all over the world, working with mission hospitals, starting their equipment refurbishment ministry, getting good used equipment from the states, converting it, refurbishing it, and sending it to mission hospitals. At the end of that year, Franklin realized, ah, I’ve got a doctor on staff.

Things broke out in Somalia. Things were going on in the Balkans with the wars. And he came and talked to me and said, David, could we do medical relief? And for the next year and a half, I was in Somalia during Black Hawk Down leading medical teams. The only place I’ve done medical work or had ten guys with AK-47s guarding our team all the time.

We saw 45,000 outpatients in the midst of famine and disease and war, and then into Sudan epidemic, relapsing fever, living in tents. Our camp got overrun. The village where we were by another tribe. We had our team held hostage, back during my cowboy days, I called them. And then we were into Rwanda during the genocide.

And about that time, CMDA came looking for me. And I had realized by that time that God had brought me, I knew to Samaritan’s Purse, but he had something else in store. So we’d already been praying about that. And I remember when I got the letter on my desk going home, showed it to my wife and said, this isn’t me.

I’m a missionary. And she was convinced from day one that’s what God had for my life. And, long story short, even the night before we went for the interview I said we’re going to Dallas because I’m serious about this job. We’re going to get to see your sister and her husband, go out to eat tomorrow night.

We’re really going five days later. We prayed through and knew that’s where God wanted us to come. And so that was 1994 and for 25 years I was the CEO of CMDA. 

[00:25:03] Tommy Thomas: Your colleague, Jamie Campbell, told me to make sure you told the story of how you got the headquarters moved from Texas to Bristol Tennessee / Virginia.

That was crazy. We had about 6,000 square feet. CMDA was struggling financially.  It was a 60-something year-old organization at that point. And things not going very well. In fact, that year, my first year, was the hardest year of my life in all probability. We had a large short-term medical mission ministry with over 50 teams a year.

And the person heading that, I’ll get into the details, but broke it off secretly and started getting the money out of the organization, telling people to cancel their trips and send it to his new organization. It was just a mess. And that, that happened over that year. But I got there and about two weeks later was coming up here to Bristol, where I am speaking from Tennessee to go do a speaking engagement that I had already booked when I left Samaritan’s Purse.

And I got to know a family when I was at Samaritan’s Purse that had helped us with medicines and supplies, they had this thing called general injectables and vaccines. And I had heard they had sold that company and they had bought a pharmaceutical company here in Bristol.  I had some time and I thought I’m going to go see if I can find Joe, one of the younger brothers I had taken to Africa with me to Kenya in Tanzania.

They had just started out, bought a plant and had 200,000 square feet of manufacturing, 200,000 square feet of office space. And they’re showing me around the building. I only had about 40 staff just starting out. And I made the offhand comment, who knows what God’s gonna do with you guys?

Look at all this room. We just put a desk in the hallway for an assistant because we’re just out of room. I’m just making small talk. A few minutes later they were down in his office, says, why don’t you move up here to Bristol and I’ll give you a floor, which was 24,000 square feet. And I thought I can’t go back.

I hadn’t even met the board yet. The search committee had made the decision and I hadn’t met the board, had a board meeting and I’m going to go tell them I’m going to move to Bristol – with a startup pharmaceutical company.  Are you nuts? So, I didn’t say anything. We had our board meeting about a month later.

I didn’t even say anything about it. And they wanted to help short-term mission groups. So they contacted us and I couldn’t go. So I sent my COO and before he left, I said, you know what? I need to tell you something in case it comes up. I don’t think they were serious, but just in case, I was up speaking in Oklahoma I believe, and I got a call and he says, we’re up here trying to figure out which floor would work.

The board had all the right questions. Are they trying to get to our members to sell their medications? What if they fail and we’ve moved up there? What if they’re successful and sell it to some other company? All those things. So I came back and talked to President John Gregory and John says, Dave, I just feel like if you’re in here God’s just gonna bless you.

It’ll flow through to us.  Here’s the deal. We have to charge you a little bit because we have loans on the building. So we’ll charge you $1,200 a month for your 24,000 square feet. But we’ll handle all the utility costs and all the cleaning and your renovations that need to be done. And if we’ll give you that for 20 years in a fixed contract and if we sell the company, it’ll be binding on them.  How’s that sound?

I go, okay. It’s kinda hard to turn down, huh? Yeah. And all of a sudden, we took our overhead almost to zero, except for salaries. We encouraged our staff to move. We made that decision in January. We moved in August of that year and we encouraged them to come up here, paid their way. Nobody moved.

Tommy, nobody. I was the oldest employee at CMDA when we got up here, but God had planned that out. You’re going to talk about some of the things with staffing and top. My best friend who I’d worked with at Samaritan’s Purse as an OBGYN doc.  I had encouraged him to come on and he came on just after we made that decision, he moved here, started hiring, sending down for training, and went off seamlessly. We decreased the cost of our salaries because it was less costly to operate here, and things just exploded and over. That was 1995. By 2002, we had outgrown our space and we’re getting ready to build the building that I’m setting in now.

[00:29:02] David Stevens: 54,000 square feet of space.  That was a God thing. Yeah. Brave on your part, but obviously the hand of the Lord on the other side. It’s interesting. He said, God will bless us. They were called King Pharmaceuticals. It’s been sold.

They were the fastest company in the history of the United States to go from startup to being listed on the S&P 500.   The head was a pharmacist, and his brother was in marketing, but God just blessed them. They were making generics and realized that’s hard work.

It’s high volume. They started buying up drugs that still had patent life and by God’s grace picked up two or three drugs that got unbelievable new indications. Every diabetic in the country should take this hypertensive they had bought, and they just got great in, these guys that started with a little bit of money and between the two of them were billionaires when they sold it. 

[00:30:07] Tommy Thomas: I want to ask you about board service, but before we go there, there is a question that I always enjoy asking people, what’s the hardest decision you’ve had to make as a leader?

[00:30:09] David Stevens: Leaving Tenwek was one. That’s a big struggle. When I was CEO, I put one of my employees on trial and he ended up in prison.  And that was a very difficult decision to make in developing countries like we were in Kenya and especially in the culture we’re in, the pressure put on young men, it’s just tremendous. If they’ve got a job, they’ve got to help with school fees, with their extended family.

You can’t get married till you have a dowry. The hormones are raging and you can’t, you don’t have enough money. And so the pressure to steal or embezzle is just huge. And this fellow who had trained, worked in our business office, had formal training. Had stolen 25 years’ worth of salary.

We had paper receipts, no computerization at that point, and he put a piece of cardboard between the two copies, write out the receipt, give it to the patient, put carbon paper on a piece of paper. We were taught, to write a different money, a different amount, and we’d had problems before Ernie was gone. And I thought, you know what, I sensed with the staff that had done this is, still as much as you can if you get fired, go home and enjoy it.

And so there had never been any long-term consequences besides getting fired. I took him, took the situation to the police, and they didn’t have a vehicle to go out and get the evidence, so I had to send out one of our vehicles and our chaplain went with them and took them to people we thought this had happened too, and finally found 13 receipts that didn’t match, and I had to go to court. This is, to get the impression of what this is like, being in the South and being African-American in the 1850s. Here you’re white and the whole court’s African and you’re bringing witness against someone.

[00:31:46] David Stevens: And then the judge wouldn’t be there. And all the time was going down and the case wouldn’t happen, and asbusy as I was, finally they put him in prison for 13 months, which I thought was light. There was a lot of criticism from the staff. He got married, his wife had just had a baby.

Dr. Stevens, you’re a missionary, you just put him in prison. But I just felt and prayed a lot about it that I need to make an example to stop this. I had a responsibility for the situation in the hospital, and God redeems everything. Thirteen months later, I was walking, going down the road, coming somewhere towards the hospital.

I saw him walk along the road and I stopped him, call him John, picked John up and said, John, how are you doing? I’m sorry I couldn’t visit you in prison, but you were far away from where we are. I said, how are you doing? He said, Dr. Stevens, I was ready to kill myself when I got in prison.  You can’t imagine how bad it was. But he said, I was just about to do that. 

And there was a pastor that came in the prison.  When I was hired, I told y’all I was a Christian, but I wasn’t. And that pastor led me to Christ. And for the last 10 months that I was there, I was going with him and sharing the gospel to other prisoners in the prison.

[00:32:55] David Stevens: I said what are you doing now? I’m trying to find a job. You can’t find a job after you’ve been in prison. I said, John, I can’t put you back in the business office. I think you understand that cause of the temptation, but I’ll hire you back at Tenwek.  He mowed grass. He had training in finances, and he was mowing grass with a machete.

And every day at break, when everybody had tea at 10 o’clock as they do in Kenya, he’d go up to the hospital and witness on the wards. Finally, I had him speak to the whole staff. I’ll never forget, he stood up and said I stole what Dr. Stevens said I stole and I deserved to go into prison, and I know some of you are stealing, and I’m going thinking, who are they?

And he gave this beautiful testimony.  About a year later I gave him a recommendation and got him a job in finance, in another place. God redeemed that. 

But that was a very difficult decision. You’re working cross-cultural, you’re a missionary, and yet you’re an administrator. You’re in charge. You have the responsibility. It was a very tough time, but God did his work all the same.

[00:33:55] Tommy Thomas: Next week, we will continue this conversation with Dr. Stevens. We will be exploring his experience and passion for board service and governance. 

[00:34:08] David Stevens: Boards are the foundation of an organization. It’s like the foundation of a house. You cannot build a solid structure unless you have a solid foundation.

“It was a different childhood than most kids have. It was wonderful. How many kids in the 50’s, early 60’s, would go to all kinds of historical spots that were in the area between meetings and have that much concentrated time with their parents?” -David Stevens

Links and Resources

JobfitMatters Website

Next Gen Nonprofit Leadership with Tommy Thomas


[email protected]

Follow Tommy on LinkedIn

Follow David Stevens on LinkedIn


Listen to Next Gen Nonprofit Leadership with Tommy Thomas on:

Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Google Podcasts