Family Leaves it all for Calling

From Poverty Blog

Most Americans probably wouldn’t trade the comforts of home for the challenges of establishing a hospital in Africa, but two local families have.

Leron and Chris Lehman were living the typical American life: Leron was successful at his job as executive vice president and chief financial officer at a medical transcription company in Harrisburg, and Chris was busy looking after three kids and a dog and volunteering at school and at church.

Then, the Monaghan Twp. couple decided to change it up.

These days, Chris passes hippos in the river as she drives the kids to school, and Leron is setting up a hospital in a country where one in five children dies before age 5.

The Lehmans moved to Niger, Africa, in January, where Leron, 38, assumed a job as executive director of the CURE Children’s Hospital of Niger, which is set to open this fall.

CURE International, based in Lemoyne, is the largest provider of pediatric specialty surgical care in the developing world. Its 10 hospitals specialize primarily in treating children with orthopedic and neurosurgical conditions such as hydrocephalus, cleft palate and clubfoot.

The 24-bed hospital in Niamey intends to serve children from throughout Niger, which is one of the world’s poorest countries. Currently, there are fewer than five orthopedic surgeons in the country, which is twice the size of Texas and has a population of more than 15 million, Leron Lehman said.

The hospital initially will have two doctors on staff. The medical director, Dr. Gary Roark, an anesthesiologist from Lebanon, has just arrived in Niger with his wife, Karina, and children Erica, 21, and Daniel, 16.

Much work is on tap for this summer, with hospital construction to finish, 45 employees to hire and training programs to begin, all in an effort to open doors to patients in September, Leron said. The hospital will also serve as a training center for Nigerian doctors and nurses in advanced specialty surgery and patient care.

The Lehmans had always prepared their kids — Drew, 13, Ben, 11, and Becca, 9 — that life might change. “We talked to our kids on a regular basis about the possibility of living and working cross culturally. We wanted them to have a broader world view than what we thought we could provide them within the U.S.,” said Chris, 40.

Surprisingly, the Lehman children were more excited than upset about moving to Africa for at least three years, maybe more. While leaving family, friends and their dog Daphne behind was hard, now they say they’re not very homesick, and they love their new house — small but with a pool — and their school.

“We have friends from all over the world — India, Vietnam, Pakistan, Australia, Brazil, Italy, Canada, America, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Niger, to name a few,” said Drew, who is looking forward to learning how to fish with a net in the Niger River and trying to figure out how to catch a hedgehog.

Drew and Ben list having to learn French as their biggest challenge while Becca has found it hard to get used to the different food and living in a house surrounded by a wall that is patrolled by a guard for security reasons.

The adventure has proved eye-opening. “They are experiencing how other people live,” their mom said. “We visited a village, and they saw the well, the little mud huts, the basic ways many live. They see people begging every day and have to wrestle with what they think about those in the world that are suffering.”

For Leron, who was anxious to use his business startup expertise in his new role, the challenges in a foreign country are formidable. “It’s a learning experience dealing with a French system of labor law, a different government structure and a work force that is dramatically different than what we are accustomed to in the States,” he said.

The health care system in Niger is also much different than what Americans enjoy, he said. “It is ‘subpar’ at best but typical of a Third World country. There is a constant lack of resources, equipment and medicine; the medical staff is often poorly trained and lacks motivation; and there is a general lack of cleanliness and sterility,” he said. “Statistics indicate that per capita health care spending in Niger is between $10 and $20 per year, compared to almost $7,000 in the U.S.”

Chris, who teases that she will be Niger’s “first candy striper,” is looking forward to greeting patients and their families and pitching in wherever needed. “I want to make the sure the kids are comfortable and be an extra pair of hands. I see endless possibilities,” she said.

The Lehmans say any challenges they face are outweighed by the value of this unique life experience.

“I saw a quote recently, ‘Take risks not to escape life, but to keep life from escaping.’ I think this sort of describes my motivation,” Leron said. “I’ve gotten to the point where I find it necessary to do things that matter and make a difference in the world. I’m trying to not let life escape and to set the right example for our children by giving them some valuable experiences that they’ll have with them for the rest of their lives.” 


  • The CURE Children’s Hospital of Niger is in the country’s capital, Niamey, and is scheduled to open this fall.
  • The hospital’s administrators are Executive Director Leron Lehman of Monaghan Twp. and Medical Director Dr. Gary Roark of Lebanon. It is expected to have about 50 employees.
  • The hospital is on five acres and has several buildings. It will have two operating rooms and 24 beds.
  • It will offer specialty surgical treatment for Nigerian children suffering from orthopedic disabilities such as clubfoot, scoliosis and bone diseases. It will be the only hospital of its kind in Niger and will act as a training center for Nigerian doctors and nurses.
  • It is projected to perform 1,000 surgeries in its first year.
  • CURE Niger will be the 11th hospital operated by CURE International and the sixth in Africa.
  • Niger gained independence from France in 1960. It is currently suffering from a drought, and in February, a military coup overturned the government.


  • Learn more about CURE International and how to donate at
  • Medical professionals and teams from churches, schools or organizations can volunteer with CURE. Contact Heather Hunter, senior global outreach coordinator, by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 724-4002. Or check the CURE website. 
  • Follow the progress of the Niger hospital on Leron Lehman’s blog at