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Dr. Suzy Schwab, fisherwoman with scalpel and cross

“Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

The first time Dr. Suzy Schwab looked at the scripture wall plaque she thought, “What does that mean?”  Now it’s one of her favorite verses.

And she has gone fishin’.

Her lure?  Lexington County’s first free traveling doctor’s office for the poor.

Dr. Schwab’s work is entwined with that of Pastor Viafanua Pele of Mission of Hope Ministries in Cayce, which partners with businesses and local churches like her home church, Mount Horeb United Methodist Church, to minister to the poor.

Her medical ministry is patterned after Mission of Hope’s frequent and miracle-filled medical missions in other countries. When Dr. Schwab went to Mexico with Pastor Pele’s ministry and saw how wonderfully his model worked, she thought, “Why not do the same here?” The idea of a mobile medical van was born.

“People told me, ‘Don’t make it a Christian mission; you won’t get federal funding.’ But Pastor Pele said, ‘Don’t leave out the Cross!’ ” she said.

Free Check-Ups, Screenings and Treatment

When patients visit the van, their health is assessed by blood-pressure readings, finger pricks to check blood sugar, by taking temperatures. The patients’ needs are then written up and they are directed to a nurse or doctor, or perhaps a wheelchair or eyeglass station.  They may be given over-the-counter medications.

However, before their last stop – the pharmacy – all clients know they will first be prayed for by a pastoral-care volunteer. In this ministry, “non-medical people are the most valuable. They do the miracles, through prayer,” Dr. Schwab said.  “Salvation is first.”

Mount Horeb church donated seed money for the medical van. “It was such an encouragement that our church had faith in the project and believed that God would work it out,” she said.

It wasn’t long before other individuals donated, including folks from Lexington Medical Center.  They collected enough for a down payment on a van that was for sale at Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. On faith, she went to New York in November 2009 and put down a check.  Her beloved father drove the van to South Carolina for her.

The community has embraced the project. “Everything so far is falling into place,” she said. “God has provided each step. You have to be flexible and keep your eyes on God.  He said, ‘Don’t be scared because I’m clearing the way.’”

“I Was Embarrassed at First”

Dr. Schwab wasn’t a Christian when she finished medical school and married Irmo native Dr. Stephen Schwab. After a few stops, the physicians eventually moved to Columbia, where

Steven is an emergency room physician at Lexington Medical Center.

Staying at home with their four children, she kept her hand in medicine. In 1998, Providence Family Practice asked her to fill in for former patients of Dr. Greg Jowers, a well-loved physician in the community who died in a boating accident.

“On my first day, I came in and sat at his old beat-up desk. It was like a dusty shrine.  The employees hadn’t touched anything,” she said. Scriptures hung in ugly, uncoordinated frames, gifts from patients.

“Let me tell you about Dr. Greg,” his patients would say to Dr. Schwab.  They told her he was a miracle worker, and that he prayed with them. “Hundreds of patients,” she said.  “They witnessed to me. My faith grew as they told me about how Dr. Greg touched their lives.”

“I can’t say I became a Christian overnight. I was embarrassed at first. I kept it private,” she said. “But I came to realize that the piece that was missing for me was faith.”

Reading the “Red” Parts

Dr. Schwab began reading the Bible, starting with the Creation account, “but after that it was boring. I tried again and it was still boring. So I decided I would read all the ‘red’ parts and faith slowly blossomed in my heart,” she said. Christianity changes your whole mindset about how you approach life, she said.

“Everything changes. You take yourself out of the top of the chain of command and put God there.

“The Bible tells us how to approach life, people. In the Bible you can find the answer to everything. Nobody had given me a rulebook,” she said.

“I had done surgery to the point where I knew my stuff and I was pretty confident but I got into situations that were not so black and white and realized that the spiritual side is so much a part of healing,” she said. “I started praying with patients and, to my surprise, no one said, ‘Don’t pray with me.’  Dr. Greg was my mentor even in death.”

Riches to Rags to Riches in Christ

Dr. Schwab’s life reads like an action film. Her Muslim father, Ali Paksima, a contractor for the American Embassy, met her mother Dorothy, a young Jewish woman working in Foreign Service in Iran. They were secretly married.

Her father became the owner of the largest shipping line in Iran. “Kind and gentle, he grew up in the depression era and felt strongly about taking care of his people. He paid his employees a salary, plus food staples,” she said.

Then the Iranian Revolution came in 1978, when  Schwab was 12. As dual citizens, her mom (who has since converted to Christianity) and her siblings were evacuated to the United States, but her father was put on a “do not leave” blacklist.  Revolutionaries confiscated his business and his house. He had to hide out.

It took two years and $75,000, but he escaped Iran through a network to the mountains of Turkey. One night, exhausted from climbing over rocks on donkeys, he slept deeply while his guides stole away. He was left alone for Turkish soldiers to find and arrest him. They threw him in jail and he had to pay to get out.

Obtaining a fake passport, he made it to Greece where he literally sat in the American Embassy several days until someone walked by and recognized him. The happy ending came when then U.S. Sen. Bob Dole gave him political asylum.

The impoverished family started over in New York. “I remember people were mean to me because I was from Iran. I visited churches for different occasions, but I was not impressed by the kids’ examples.  I saw kids who went to church do bad things, things I wouldn’t fathom doing. Family honor and name were important to uphold,” she said. “I could not understand grace,” Dr. Schwab said.

In the Middle East, it’s a “works culture” based on barter, honor and family tradition, Schwab explained.  “In Islam, you are born in sin and it only gets worse. There is very little redemption.  Most who recite the daily prayers don’t even understand what they are chanting.

“You can do works and give money, but as you travel through life an overwhelming guilt diminishes you as a human being and you are without hope.”  The thought that you can be free of that, the fact that “you don’t have to clean up your act,” she said, is the good news of Christ.

Ali and Dorothy Paksima wanted their children to make up their own minds about religion, but Schwab thinks that approach can lead kids into a lot of confusion.

The Schwabs have three girls and a boy, ages 7-15. They all participate in local ministries and the eldest has been on international missions. “I want our four children to understand hunger for the faith. I didn’t grow up that way, hungry.

“My paren
ts were always there for us. They took care of us wonderfully, but I needed to understand they were not in charge of everything. Today I tell my kids, ‘God is in charge, not me. I make mistakes and God doesn’t make mistakes,’ ” she said.

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