For Rev. James and Andrea Sinke, health care was an important aspect of the decision-making process before considering his call to Bethel URC in Woodstock, ON. That’s because the Sinkes’ youngest daughter, Sarah, has required special care for continuing health concerns since she was born four years ago.
“Sarah’s health care wasn’t our primary consideration,” says Rev. Sinke, “but we had to be assured of it before we could consider coming.” He explains they first had to find a doctor willing to take on Sarah’s care. An ICU internist took it upon himself to conduct the search and finally found a London doctor willing to provide care for Sarah. Knowing that option was available, Rev. Sinke prayerfully considered and accepted the call.
On August 15, 2012, the Sinke family left Rock Valley, IA, where he had served the URC congregation for almost seven years. The Sinkes stayed with family in the St. Catharines area until their rental home became available on August 29. The parents of both James and Andrea live in southern Ontario.
“We didn’t leave to get closer to family, although now that we’re here it’s a bonus,” says Rev. Sinke. “But we left ‘family’ behind in Rock Valley, too.”
Rev. Sinke’s installation service was held on September 7 at Bethel URC, which is part of the newly formed Classis Southwest Ontario. Rev. Greg Bylsma, Bethel’s former pastor now at Living Water Reformed Church in Brantford, ON, opened the service. Rev. John Bouwers, Immanuel Orthodox Reformed Church in Jordan, ON, officiated the form and vows. Rev. Todd De Rooy, Redeemer URC in Orange City, IA, preached from Acts 20 and Paul’s final words to the Ephesian elders.
“Being a good friend of mine and someone who has walked and prayed with me for the years that we’ve known each other, Rev. De Rooy was not afraid to point out the hardships and perils of the minister’s life and calling,” relates Rev. Sinke. “He spoke with great encouragement about the Lord’s love for His Church and for those whom He has called to the pastoral ministry, but he also bravely explained why we pastors need to continue in humility, a lesson the Lord has been teaching me in a very acute way these past years.”
Part of that educational process for Rev. Sinke and Andrea has been learning more about trusting God during difficult circumstances. The Sinkes have four children: Leah (9), Rebekah or “Bekah” (8), Aaron (almost 6) and Sarah, who turned 4 in July, and has struggled since birth with health problems related to a multi-faceted condition.
“Sarah was born with VACTERL Association, which means there were issues with her V-vertebrae, her A-lower digestive tract, her C-heart, her T-trachea, her E-esophagus, her R-kidneys, and her L-limbs,” explains Rev. Sinke. “Of the seven markers, she has had the least problem with her limbs, the only concern being that one leg is slightly shorter than the other.”
Not being aware of any problems with the pregnancy, the Sinkes felt comfortable with Rev. Sinke taking their two oldest children to Canada for his brother’s wedding three and a half weeks before their baby was due.
“When Andrea called me that she had gone into labour, I flew home as quickly as I could. My mom took care of the girls, flying to Iowa with them after the wedding and staying with our kids for a few weeks until Andrea’s mom could relieve her.”
The first indication of problems occurred in the delivery room, when medical personnel had to suction out Sarah’s mouth every few minutes. While Andrea remained alone in the local hospital (James did not arrive until 2:00 AM), an ambulance took baby Sarah to Sioux Falls. Upon discovery that Sarah’s esophagus was only a pouch, which was not connected to her stomach, she was flown by helicopter to Minneapolis.
Rev. Sinke says, “The next day, I had to give permission to a doctor we had never met to do a surgery we had never heard of on a daughter I had never seen!”
Sarah was born with a tube connecting her stomach to her trachea, a very dangerous condition that would allow air to enter the stomach and stomach juices to enter the lungs. That tube was severed and her stomach was connected to her small intestine so she could begin digesting food.
After several weeks in Minneapolis, Sarah was transferred by helicopter to the NICU in Sioux Falls so the Sinkes could be closer to their other children. But soon she was transported back to Minneapolis with the hope of further surgery. Doctors decided Sarah was not ready for the surgery yet, so Andrea stayed at the Ronald McDonald House for six weeks, until 24-hour nursing care could be arranged for Sarah at home.
“Finally in November, they performed the surgery to attaché her esophagus to her stomach and that surgery was successful, although Sarah has always struggled to control her reflux since then, contributing to her frequent bouts with pneumonia,” says Rev. Sinke. “Since she did not learn how to use her swallowing muscles at birth, whenever that reflux came up her esophagus, or even if she had lots of saliva from teething, it sat at the back of her throat and was often swallowed into her lungs.”
Sarah has been hospitalized with aspiration pneumonia 18 times, although she has improved somewhat in her ability to fight it and to eat and swallow properly. She receives most nutrition and nearly all hydration via a feeding tube.
In January of 2009, Sarah underwent a surgery to sever fatty tissue at the base of her spine from the skin on her back. Rev. Sinke says, “It is likely that Sarah would have been paralyzed for life from the waist down if this surgery had not been done.”
Only a month later, Sarah had surgery to repair several problems with her heart. She will need further surgery within the next couple of years and again in her 30s. Following her heart surgery, most of Sarah’s care was at a new children’s hospital in Sioux Falls.
During 2010, doctors performed surgery to correct some issues causing chronic kidney infections and to make her lower digestive tract function properly.
In July of 2011, Sarah fell off the couch while playing and broke her tailbone. Initial x-rays indicated no severe problem, but when she fell on her tailbone again at the end of September, swelling was sudden and did not subside. X-rays again seemed to show normal swelling, but the doctor ordered pictures from another angle and saw a growth.
“We were told that it was probably not a tumour, but we should have it checked,” recalls Rev. Sinke. “When we found out that it was a tumour, we were told that it was probably benign, but a biopsy told us that it was malignant and vigourous. By this time, there was a bulge on her lower back about the size of my fist. The tumour was pushing against her internal organs, impeding bodily functions, and fingers of the tumour were reaching perilously close to her spinal cord.”
Chemotherapy began with a week. Tests indicated the chemo was working to slow down the tumor’s growth and eventually shrink it. But after four rounds of chemo, Sarah contracted a virus.
“Within hours she went from her version of normal to very sick and was taken to the ER by ambulance,” says Rev. Sinke. “For a week they tried to figure out what was wrong, but her health was quickly declining. The doctor recommended that we put Sarah on a ventilator, which we did, and later, after further tests, he told us that we had been within hours of losing her. That was a very difficult week, and while the Lord had taught us many times before in Sarah’s life to rely on Him for His mercy, we were very scared. He was gracious and spared her life, and she slowly recovered from the virus.”
At the end of March in 2012, a delicate surgery was performed to remove the last remnants of Sarah’s tumor. Rev. Sinke says, “We were overwhelmed with joy when the surgeon told us that the surgery was successful.” Regular tests since then confirm that the cancer has not returned.
Since the move to Woodstock, Sarah has battled colds that have turned into pneumonia. The Sinkes were able to care for her at home until her condition became acute enough to require hospitalization in London from November 26-December 2.
“The difficult part about the transition is that we had developed a great familiarity and comfort with the doctors and nurses in Sioux Falls, and in particular, there was great rapport and trust between them and Andrea,” says Rev. Sinke. “This was one of those blessings from God that you look back on and realize just how much of a treasure it was. It was not easy to let that go and it will take time to develop that again, the Lord willing, as Sarah begins receiving her care in London.”
During the first 90 days of the Sinkes’ residency in Ontario, their health expenses are not covered by the public healthcare system, so they retained their American health plan to cover emergencies. Bethel URC found an insurance plan that helps cover the cost of medications and the congregation pledged to cover any other health-related expenses until OHIP comes into effect.
Bethel United Reformed Church of Woodstock consists of almost 200 souls. The congregation meets at 862 Alice St. in Woodstock at 9:30 AM for the first Sunday service. The second service is held at 3:00 PM from October to May, and at 7:00 PM from June to September.
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 6-7 & 9 of the December 26, 2012, issue of Christian Renewal.