From left to right are doctors Alex Shurling, Rachel Johnson and Anna Strasma. All three attended Prince of Peace Catholic Church and were inspired by their mission work with the nonprofit Amigos for Christ in Nicaragua to go into medicine. (Contributed photo)

INSPIRE ATLANTA: 3 women find joy in mission work, medicine

Anna Strasma has taken many mission trips to impoverished Nicaragua. But it only took one eye-opening visit when she was 11 to change her life.

“On her first trip, she decided she wanted to be a doctor to help the poor down there,” said her mother, Tessa Sulimirski of Buford.

Strasma and close friends Alex Shurling and Rachel Johnson are doctors today, inspired by their mission trips to Nicaragua with Amigos for Christ, a nonprofit that grew out of a youth ministry at Buford’s Prince of Peace Catholic Church.

“We’ll always be connected to Amigos for Christ,” Johnson said. “It’s been a huge part of our lives, not only in our childhood but really into our adult lives as well.”

Amigos for Christ was formed in 1999 at Prince of Peace, which is now in Flowery Branch. The nonprofit’s goal is to bring clean water, schools, disease prevention, community leadership training and small economic development projects to 19 communities in Nicaragua, the second poorest nation in the western hemisphere.

An army of 12,000 volunteers – many of them teenagers – have worked side-by-side with locals to complete 18 deep well water systems and built about 1,000 modern bathrooms, complete with flush toilets, sinks and showers, in those 20 years. This year, the organization will finish a 19th water system in the rural farming community of LaDanta, about 20 miles outside of Chinandega, Nicaragua’s fifth largest city.

About 40% of the volunteers have made at least one return trip to Nicaragua, where, according to Amigos for Christ, most children don’t finish the sixth grade, and skin disease, respiratory disease, and parasites are rampant.

Some volunteers — including Strasma, Shurling and Johnson — have been back repeatedly, sometimes for months at a time.

John Bland, executive director of Amigos for Christ, said the experiences the three women had in Nicaragua “changed the course of their lives, professionally and personally.”

“They saw things that could change the health of others and decided to dedicate their lives to it,” said Bland, who founded Amigos for Christ after Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Maggie Shane prepares medical supplies for shipping to help the poor in Nicaragua at the Amigos for Christ warehouse and office in Buford. (Phil Skinner/For the AJC)

Strasma, Shurling and Johnson received their medical degrees from the Medical College of Georgia. Strasma and Johnson specialized in internal medicine, Shurling in obstetrics and gynecology.

Shurling, 30, was the only one of the three who wanted to be a doctor long before she ever set foot in Nicaragua. “I grew up telling people I was going to be one when I grew up,” she said.

Seeing the needs of the people in Nicaragua “just strengthened” her resolve, Shurling said.

Johnson recalls that she first started thinking about a career in medicine on some of her early trips with Amigos. That’s when volunteers, herself included, would climb aboard a large SUV dubbed “the ambulance” and travel an hour or two to deliver stockpiles of much-needed medical supplies.

Strasma, 28, is finishing up her medical residency in Houston. She’s also pursuing an eight-year fellowship, with the goals of becoming a kidney specialist and discovering a cure for MesoAmerican nephropathy, a rare kidney disease that kills Nicaraguan men in their 30s and 40s.

“She’s on fire to find a cure for that disease that’s killing young men who are otherwise healthy,” said Sulimirski, a volunteer with Amigos for Christ for three years and staffer for the last 16 years.

The three newly minted doctors are busy mapping out their futures.

While Strasma pursues her interest in kidney disease, Shurling, a native of Chicago and longtime Lawrenceville resident, is starting in a private ob/gyn practice in a small community in South Carolina. Johnson, a third-year resident at WellStar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, is considering a career in academic medicine.

“We’ll just kind of see where God takes us,” Johnson, 28, said. “I’m hoping I’ll be able to find a place where I can combine my interests of global health and academic medicine.”

The three women remain close friends – bound together by their deep Catholic faith, the fellowship they found in Amigos for Christ and the fun they’ve shared. They’ve been there for each other through the challenges of med school, danced at each other’s weddings and collectively found joy in their mission work in Nicaragua.

Each expects to be back in Nicaragua one day, if not often.

Shurling was last there in 2017, as a third-year resident. She went with a group of ob/gyns, who collectively performed “43 surgeries in a week on a bunch of people who really needed surgeries.”

She hopes to be back with another team of ob/gyns in the not-to-distant future. “I’d love to just be able to give back to the people,” Shurling said.

Johnson is already talking about taking son Micah, now six months, and “showing him the ropes.”

“Hopefully, he’ll be able to serve when he gets a little older,” she said.

What inspires them 

The bond: “We’ll always be connected to Amigos for Christ. It’s been a huge part of our lives, not only in our childhood but really into our adult lives as well.” – Rachel Johnson 

Joy in service: “It was such a cool thing to go back to Nicaragua as a doctor and serve the people I have such a love for.” — Alex Shurling 

The impact: “I hear it every day. People were on a trip 20 years ago in high school and now they want to send their kids. It’s really cool how it’s been life-changing.” — Tessa Sulimirski 

Inspiring biblical quote: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”

HELP US INSPIRE ATLANTA 

We recognize a big part of our journalistic mission is to shine a spotlight on wrongdoings and to hold our public officials accountable. But we also understand the importance of presenting uplifting stories that celebrate our region’s moments, milestones and people — these are the stories we feature in Inspire Atlanta. 

Know someone who inspires you or makes metro Atlanta a better place for others? Email us at inspireatlanta@ajc.com.

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