Origin of the medical program
Though Moravian missionaries informally practiced medicine as an important aspect of their ministries, it was not until 1934 that the church established a medical clinic in Nicaragua. A remarkably gifted and determined theologian and physician, Dr. A. David Thaeler, Jr., built a small 900 square foot clinic that year at Bilwaskarma, on a budget of $625.
A year later, Dr. Thaeler sent out an appeal for a nurse. Margaret Heidenreich, daughter of Moravian missionaries in Bluefields, responded. Three days after her arrival in Bilwaskarma, she and Dr. Thaeler were engaged and were married one month later. That same year she opened a nurses’ training school. Within another year the first wing of the Ruth Thaeler Hospital, named for Dr. Thaeler’s mother, had been built and dedicated.
The Thaeler legacy
For many years the Moravian hospital at Bilwaskarma was the only medical facility in the region. It served a wide variety of medical needs, including surgery, preventative medicine and public health. Dr. and Mrs. Thaeler continued to direct the hospital and nursing school until their retirement in 1964. For his outstanding contributions to the people of Nicaragua, Dr. Thaeler received the nation’s highest civilian award.
Prior to concluding his service in Nicaragua, Dr. Thaeler was instrumental in the establishing of the Pauline Bahnson Gray Hospital in Puerto Cabezas. Dividing his time between Bilwaskarma and Puerto Cabezas, Dr. Thaeler supervised and administered at both hospitals.
The 1980’s brought terrible sadness to the Rio Coco area. Miskitu villages were destroyed during the warfare between the contras and the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Bilwaskarma was not spared. The Thaeler Hospital was destroyed in 1983.
Rebuilding and a new vision
With the election of a new government in 1990, Moravians went about the task of rebuilding their villages and restoring community and church life. By 1995 a new medical facility had been rebuilt on the site of the Thaeler Hospital in Bilwaskarma. In 1997 the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health and the Moravian Church together implemented a primary health care program at the clinic.
Leadership, assistance, and effectiveness
Dr. Florence Levy, whose mother was for many years Nursing Director of the hospital in Puerto Cabezas and who is an M.D. with special graduate training in public health in England, was appointed Coordinator of the Moravian health care program and became responsible for oversight of the clinic. Dr. Peter Haupert, who served as director of the Thaeler Hospital following the retirement of Dr. Thaeler, worked closely with Dr. Levy in organizing the program. Dr. Robert Bach and Partners in Health have also assisted Dr. Levy in many ways during the past few years.
Currently, the Bilwaskarma clinic serves about 10,000 people in ten communities in the planning, supervision and evaluation of preventative and curative care and in the promotion of healthy life styles.
Between 1997 and 1999 clinic personnel saw over 11,000 patients on an outpatient basis. During these same years 225 patients were admitted, 26 major surgeries were performed, and 58 women gave birth at the clinic.
Dr. Levy resigned as Coordinator of the Moravian health program in August 2000 due to her increasingly demanding responsibilities in public health on a national level with the Ministry of Public Health.