by Beth Townsend
How does a sick child in a Sudanese refugee camp become Homecoming King at one of the largest university campuses in the country?
“My story is possible because of them,” Michael Panther says as he nods knowingly at his adoptive family. Tears welled in every eye in the room as he continued, “I would not be able to tell my story if they had not listened to God. This is a God-story and a complete miracle. If this family were going to choose a kid to adopt, they could have chosen from 100,000 kids that are less dependent. Why did they choose me? It is something every night I look back and see that God has a purpose in my life.”
Dr. Timothy C. Mead and his wife Jana had already chosen the route less traveled. As missionaries, originally from Michigan, they currently live in the Philippines where they are helping open a new hospital. Jana laughed and added, “I married Tim for his money, then he decided to go into missions!”
In 2005 while working in Kenya with Cure International, they met Michael. He was born and spent his younger years in South Sudan during its civil war. When he was 10 years old he become so ill that he could no longer run. Seeking medical treatment during that war was nearly impossible. Unable to find help, a divine appointment would soon offer miraculous hope.
“One night a small plane landed in that area doing humanitarian work. Someone asked if they could take me to Kenya,” Michael recalled. “They don’t take a lot of people because there are so many in need. They made an exception to bring my father and I along. We looked for treatment, yet no one knew what was wrong. I was getting weaker and sicker. We heard that doctors were coming from Nairobi and that they were going to see patients. Thankfully, they saw me and said they would bring me to the hospital and do spine surgery.”
The Meads ran outreaches in seven or eight areas around Kenya. The refugee camps had been there for 10 years with approximately 100,000 refugees. As an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Mead explained Michael’s situation.
“He had a tuberculosis infection eating away the vertebrae of his upper back. The trachea was damaged and very restricted. He was paralyzed and had a big abscess that required surgery. Plus the TB treatments last for nine months.” The surgery was the beginning of a long process.
“We put a tube in his chest the first day and he quit breathing. He went into cardiac arrest. They put a trach [tracheostomy tube] in,” Dr. Mead explained. Proper treatment required extensive planning. After reaching out to numerous experts, the Meads were left with few options due to the risks involved. Refusing to give up, Dr. Mead decided to perform the surgery himself.
“We did the surgery, got his breathing regulated, [and] then he had trouble with scar tissue,” he recalled. “Once that was corrected, his motor functions came back and he was walking with crutches. Then he had a spinal cord stroke and he went paralyzed again.” From his wheelchair, Michael nodded as Dr. Mead continued, “We would love to have his walk back. Yet, he was so sick, we never thought he would live through this. Our spiritual team would come and pray over him every day. He learned to speak English and we all became good friends.”
Michael had been able to witness the thread of miraculous events. Though he was aware he had defeated the odds by making it through the illness and surgery, he still was paralyzed. He began to fear what lay ahead.
“I asked God, ‘Why did you do this to me?’ So I could look forward to suffering in a wheelchair in the refugee camp? It gave me a lot depression,” Michael said.
Jana recalled those moments saying, “Michael would call us when he was not doing well, so I came to visit him. Then I heard Jesus. He said, ‘I want you to take care of Michael.’ As Michael was talking to me from across the room, I was talking, in my mind, to Jesus saying, ‘but I don’t know Michael!’ He kept saying to me, ‘I want you to take care of Michael.’”
She decided to talk to her husband about it, informing Tim that, “God told me that we have to take care of Michael.” She continued saying, “Tim said, ‘Ok, if God said we have to take care of Michael, then we will take care of Michael.’” Jana began the process of looking for schools with the help of another missionary friend. Michael had no prior schooling other than a bit of “under the tree” writing in the dirt in South Sudan, which required a three-mile walk.
They began to look for a school that would take him in seventh grade, finding only one that agreed. “It was a school for kids with mental and physical disability. The conditions are sad. We cried when we saw how they live,” she recalled. “He did well, but when we would visit he was skinny because they would just serve rice. We would fatten him up when he would come home and send him back.”
“He went half the year in seventh grade and the whole year in eighth grade,” she continued. “He had to take an exam to qualify to get into high school. If you got 250 out of 500 you passed. If you got 300 you were doing great. If you got 350 you could go to any high school you wanted to; he scored 394.” Michael was enrolled in Hillcrest Secondary School in Nairobi, Kenya.
Michael’s family, still in Sudan, came to visit, but due to the lengthy recovery they could not stay. Once his father realized that he was going to be able to go to school and get the help he needed he gave written permission for the Meads to become Michael’s legal guardians.
Michael came to live permanently with his new family when he was 16-years-old. During his senior year in high school he visited the U.S., to begin considering a college education. The Meads had long-time friend, Alicia Hoard, in Baton Rouge, and it was determined that Michael would attend LSU.
Hoard says that she has loved having Michael as part of her family. “On a daily basis, he demonstrates trusting in a God without limits. I am a single mom with two adopted children from Kazakhstan. Lexie and Michael love and look up to ‘Big Michael,’ as they call him, as their big brother,” she says. “He provides a living example of all things being possible with God and that a thankful heart is a joyful heart! I have never heard Big Michael complain about anything. These are valuable lessons, not just for my kids, but also for me and for all who have the privilege to encounter him.”
Recently, he graduated with a degree in economics. His plans are yet to be finalized, but Michael is confident that the same God who directed his steps is still leading. He smiled saying, “That is a God-thing. He always has his plan and I am looking forward to what he has for me next.” Michael attends The Chapel on the Campus where he is involved in the International Ministry as well as the Refuge college ministry.
One of the highlights of Michael’s time at LSU was his election as Homecoming King. He was also president of the International Student Association. Michael says that being involved in student government offered him many experiences. He laughed saying, “In the middle of the semester people started nominating me for homecoming court. I was like, ‘I am not one of those kind of people who do this. Look at me!’’’
Michael continued saying, “I didn’t want to do it, but many said, ‘Go for it, give it a try.’ So I applied then was selected for an interview. From the interviews they select three seniors, then the student body votes. They don’t announce it until halftime at the homecoming game. I heard my name and I was surprised. It was such an honor!”
The family came to celebrate his graduation from LSU. Jana beamed at his accomplishments as she thought back. “Our older three kids were out of the house when we took Michael in. Our youngest, Abbey, was still there so for her it was a transition,” she explained. “Yet, they consider Michael their brother. We have given him a home with siblings. He missed out on that with his biological siblings; he was the oldest. It has been good and a lot of fun.”
When asked if she would recommend this route to others, Jana smiled confidently then answered saying, “Sure, but only if God tells you. If we do it in our own strength it doesn’t work. It is interesting how God supported us financially for the cost of the high school and college. We feel privileged to see what God is going to do in his life.”
Dr. Mead summed it up saying, “It has to do with Lordship. Our experience with Michael started back when I was in private practice 15-years before we became missionaries. We went to Kenya in 1997 for our ‘once in a lifetime trip,’ never to be repeated, for one month. The Cure Hospital was not even built, so the founder stayed with us and started sharing the vision.” Soon after, they became missionaries.
“We are excited to see how God will use Michael,” Dr. Mead continued. “If he had fully recovered from TB he would be back in Sudan now. That was not God’s plan. He will have opportunities to share some of the struggles of being disabled. It has shown us just how difficult it is, even in a state school — how much is not handicap accessible.”
The Meads are a unique family of faith. Jana recalled with tears, Michael’s will to live when they first met him. She turned to her son and proudly said, “Even before you got sick, you were determined, walking three hours to get to school. You wanted an education and had determination; you were going to make it. God planted that in you from the beginning. You just graduated [from] LSU! I am very proud of you.” The room was clearly filled with the spirit of love as Dr. Mead added, “It is worth it to change a life.”