The People Behind the Projects: Mark & Allison Karnes

We had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Mark and Allison Karnes and learn a little more about what inspires them to do this life-changing work in Ethiopia. Dr. Mark is responsible for the prolapsed uterus surgeries, and his wife Allison is the brains behind the WRAPs (washable, reusable, affordable pads) project.

Not everyone has the temperament and motivation to pick up their lives and move to Cameroon.

But Allison and Mark Karnes decided that was the path for them. Oh, and they did it with a baby on the way.

The couple made the trek to central Africa shortly after Dr. Mark graduated, where they operated a primary care clinic.

Life wasn’t always easy – the heat was intense and they dealt with malaria, parasites and all kinds of realities of life that don't exist in the States – but it’s a special part of their history.

Two of the Karnes' children were born in Cameroon, and when they left five years later, a third was on the way. They now have five children, several of whom have lived and worked in various parts of Africa.

 A few of the MWAHFE committee members who went to visit with Mark and Allison Karnes in Port Huron. We had a lovely chat at Cracker Barrel! What an honour to find out a little bit more about this inspiring couple.

A few of the MWAHFE committee members who went to visit with Mark and Allison Karnes in Port Huron. We had a lovely chat at Cracker Barrel! What an honour to find out a little bit more about this inspiring couple.

It would be more than two decades after that journey in Cameroon that the Karnes returned to the continent, spending 25 years in Michigan in between. There, Dr. Mark ran his own gynaecological practice.

“We knew that at some point in time we’d go back in Africa,” he said.

They couldn’t stay away, and they felt called to return. Just over a month after retirement, the Karnes landed in Ethiopia.

“When you visit Africa, it gets in your bloodstream. You get infected with it,” said Mark.

And it would be about more than just serving the people. The Karnes were inspired to share their knowledge and leave a lasting legacy behind.

It was at a medical missions conference that they learned about the Pan-African Academy of Christian Surgeons (PAACS), an organization that seeks to keep African surgeons at home, with hopes of reversing the “brain drain” that often draws the best and brightest physicians to developed countries like the US and Canada.

Knowing they wanted to contribute to that initiative helped narrow down the options for a return to the African continent.

But why Ethiopia?

“They had coffee there. And popcorn,” Dr. Mark said with a chuckle.

Of course the decision was more complicated. The Ethiopian climate attracted the Karnes, and Allison formed a special bond with friends at the Soddo Christian Hospital.

When you visit Africa, it gets in your bloodstream.
— Dr. Mark Karnes

It seemed like a good fit.

And PAACS drew them in.

“It's one thing to know how to perform a caesarian, and save the life of mother and baby. But to teach someone how to do that is (about) duplication,” said Mark. And at the Soddo Christian Hospital, that's exactly what he does.

Mothers with a Heart for Ethiopia volunteers even had the chance to take a peek at a surgery conducted by Dr. Mark – with help from an training doctor – on a recent trip. Practicing medicine is very different, even at a privately-funded hospital, in Ethiopia. Supplies are not always readily available, and even water isn't a guarantee.

But what struck our volunteers the most was the incredible patience that Dr. Mark showed throughout the course of the operation. Not only was he working to repair a delicate reproductive system, but he was sharing his knowledge with a less experienced surgeon. 

“It's very important, because I'm not always going to be there,” Dr. Mark said.

 Dr. Mark chats with Shelley outside the Bucama Health Clinic in rural Ethiopia in February 2017. This facility directs some patients to Soddo Christian Hospital to undergo surgery with Dr. Mark.

Dr. Mark chats with Shelley outside the Bucama Health Clinic in rural Ethiopia in February 2017. This facility directs some patients to Soddo Christian Hospital to undergo surgery with Dr. Mark.

While Mark is changing lives in the operating room (learn more about prolapse), Allison is out doing the same in rural schools all over the region with the WRAPS initiative. (Check out our spotlight story on WRAPS here!)

“We talk a lot about menstruation and what it is, and the biology of it,” said Allison. “I talk a lot about being safe, because rape is still a big concern.”

The WRAPS – washable, reusable, affordable pads – have caught the eye of many, including some local and influential leaders who have brought Allison into schools that had never received similar programming.

 Allison teaches a workshop on WRAPS at Abba Pascal Girls School, one of the sites for Girls Gotta Run programming.

Allison teaches a workshop on WRAPS at Abba Pascal Girls School, one of the sites for Girls Gotta Run programming.

It’s sweet to listen to Mark and Allison talk about their lives. What’s clear is that the couple has an incredible bond and partnership. They know each other’s passions inside and out, and the pride in their voices is evident when they talk about those projects.

Over their decades in Ethiopia, the Karnes have played witness to so much change – and progress.

“In 2007 there was only one paved road in Soddo,” said Mark. “When we first arrived, all of the taxis were donkeys and mules and horses.”

There wasn't a bajaj in sight.

Just seven years ago, about 94% of women were estimated to be delivering their children at home without medical care. Now that’s dropped to about 50%, Mark said.

Development is constant, and life changes all the time.

“They even, on the weekends at this one hotel, have ice cream,” said Mark with awe.

It’s amazing how much can change with “funds and a little heart,” said Allison.

The Karnes are the perfect example of that. And there’s so much more the couple hopes to accomplish.

“I can’t live long enough to do enough there. I have projects that would keep me busy for another 100 years,” Allison said. “It only takes a little money to change the lives of an entire community.”

Despite the hard work and the long hours, the Karnes said it is an honour and a joy to work, live and serve in Soddo.

 “We are the ones who are blessed,” Mark said.

“We learn so much from the Ethiopian people.”