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Occupational therapist lives God’s love on mission trip to Sierra Leone, Africa


When invited to travel to Waterloo Hospital in Sierra Leone, Africa, on a mission trip with Tillamook Regional Medical Center, Sonja Bradburn had some reservations. “I was fearful of my own safety,” she says. “And it really is a dangerous place.”

However, to those who know Sonja, occupational therapist and director of rehabilitation services at TRMC, fearful is not a word used to describe her. As an energetic and outdoorsy mother of boys, Sonja stands out as an example of active living. If she was nervous about the trip, it didn’t show. Despite standing little more than five feet tall, Sonja embodies the spirit of courage, and nowhere could this be more clearly seen than in Sierra Leone. Whether she was moving from hospital bed to hospital bed to see patients, curing someone’s hiccups or navigating the night market to buy groceries, Sonja’s kind and courageous spirit allowed her to handle each situation in a way that let others know they were cared for.

Smiling woman

One person who experienced this care was Tamba, a 25-year-old with bright eyes and a smile that came from the heart. Tragically, Tamba had lost the use of his legs when he suffered a spinal cord injury while on the job at a construction site. With very little infrastructure in place for someone with disabilities, his life was altered drastically and he was bed ridden for most of a year.When the team arrived, Tamba had been in the hospital trying to recover from a bed sore. His year of inactivity had caused him to lose much of his independence and he now relied on his family or hospital staff to do even small things for him. Although his siblings would come to the hospital to give food or to hang out and watch a movie on an old DVD player, his life was confined to his bed.

This was the scene that Sonja came upon when she first met Tamba at Waterloo hospital. When she saw his lack of independence, her heart went out to him and it wasn’t long before she was using the few resources she had to make changes and solve problems in his daily life.

As an occupational therapist, Sonja is skilled in creating ways to adapt a patient’s surroundings to meet their needs. Within just a few short days, she had fashioned rope handles that Tamba could use to sit himself up and had him practice activities like putting on clothes and transferring from his bed to a wheel chair. While it was difficult at first, Tamba’s growing strength led to new confidence. “Our plan was to help Tamba become more independent,” says Sonja. “I thought, ‘There’s so much more this guy can do.’ I know he’s not incapable.”

As their relationship grew, Sonja made sure to include Tamba in events and activities that would get him out of bed and engaged in what was happening around the hospital. On Saturday, Sonja helped Tamba navigate across the hospital grounds to reach the local Seventh-day Adventist church where he could sing with the congregation and participate in the service.

To help him with his focus and to increase the strength of his sitting muscles, Sonja brought Lego blocks to the hospital and had Tamba work on building the plane as directed by the instructions. This gave him a chance to get out of bed, sit up and engage in a challenging task.

As the trip came to a close, Sonja wanted to find a way to keep Tamba engaged and active long after she had gone. She decided to work with Tamba and some of his caregivers to create a daily schedule, designating time to get up and out of bed. The highlight of this schedule was a time set aside at the end of each day when Tamba could transfer from his bed to his wheelchair and go throughout the patient ward, offering prayer and a Bible reading to each patient that wanted it. To do this, Tamba needed a Bible.

“I found out that his favorite book is the Bible, but he only had the New Testament,” says Sonja. “He told me, ‘One day I want to have both the Old Testament and the New Testament’ and I was able to give him one.”

African Teen

Before Sonja left, Tamba offered to pray for her. And with a newly-built Lego airplane hanging from the ceiling above his hospital bed, Tamba said a prayer of blessing and safe travels for Sonja and her team members.

Even though Sonja was in Sierra Leone for about two weeks, she and Tamba developed a friendship that will continue throughout life. Each one impacted the life of the other. Tamba received a newfound independence, purpose and hope. Sonja, on the other hand, was given a fresh perspective on life.

“Despite my reservations about coming to Sierra Leone, I know there are risks in life and they are worth it,” says Sonja. “It’s worth putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation when there are so many rewards that far outweigh the risks. And the power of making a difference brings so much joy.”


From left to right: Justin Mock, wellness coordinator; Jonathan Jackson, physical therapist; Dr. David Bradburn, family medicine physician; Sonja Bradburn, occupational therapist and rehabilitation services director; Becki Gardner, missionary in Sierra Leone; Danny Parada, chaplain and spiritual care director.