Couple's mission of mercy is for kids

San Ramon Valley Herald - Saturday, December 30, 1995
by Kimberly Winston

DANVILLE - When Vula and Haig Rushdoony retired, they thought they might enjoy their backyard pool and their four grown children and one grandchild.

But instead, this Danville couple, married for 13 years, found themselves journeying around the world in search of desperately ill children in war-ravaged countries who can benefit from medical help in the United States.

"When we retired, we knelt and promised the Lord that if he wanted to use us, we would be available," said Vula Rushdoony, 56, as Haig, 70, sipped tea at their kitchen table. "And that's how the whole thing started."

And while that short trip to their knees has resulted in many long trips across miles of sea and land, it has also brought a new depth to both their lives and their faith.

The Rushdoonys' first trip was to Bulgaria in Aug. 1992. Vula, a former manager for Del Monte, and Haig, a retired California State University professor, planned to do some mission work among the gypsies there. Before they left, a friend introduced them to a Bulgarian couple with a sick niece in the city of Sofia. The Rushdoonys promised to check up on the child.

But they were unprepared for the girl's condition. Tereza, then 7, was suffering from epidermolysis bullosa, a rare hereditary skin disease that results in severe boils and lesions all over the body. Tereza weighed only 35 pounds when the Rushdoonys knocked at her parents' door.

" All of us adults were crying," Vula said. "But she came over to us and patted us on the shoulders and said it was okay."

Indeed, it was. Alerted to Tereza's condition, Danville friends Terry and Deanna Thompson called Stanford Children's Hospital and asked what could be done for Tereza.

"And that started a whole new journey for Tereza," Vula continued. "Then it was just miracle after miracle."

As part of their research into a cure for the disease, Stanford agreed to treat her for free. Calls to friends and family brought in $2,000 for the girl's hospital expenses. An airline executive donated plane tickets, and Vula flew to Sofia and brought the girl back to the Bay Area in Dec. 1992.

Throughout the holidays, Vula took Tereza from doctor to doctor, asking each to donate their services to the girl. Seven different specialists - orthopedists, anesthesiologists and dermatologists - agreed to operate on her deformed feet and tongue free of charge once they met her. The hospital asked the Rushdoonys only for the $2,000 they had raised for Tereza in exchange for her two-week hospital stay.

"I went hungry as a child and never begged for a thing," said Vula, who came alone to California from Greece at the age of 16. "But God took all that pride away when I was begging for another."

In late February, Tereza underwent two separate surgeries. The girl, now 10, is able to play like other children and goes to school, something that was not possible before. She is slated to return to Bulgaria this June.

Inspired by Tereza's success, the Rushdoonys organized The Macedonian Outreach, and have brought five more children, their parents and doctors from Bosnia, Greece, Montenegro, Serbia and Bulgaria to American hospitals. Pictures of their smiling faces crowd the surface of their kitchen refrigerator.

The foundation, which is run out of the Rushdoonys' home, also collects clothes and buys food for Balkan refugees and supports ministries among Bulgarian gypsies, Bulgarians and Armenians. More than 30 local volunteers are responsible for the work.

Two of those volunteers are Gloria and Wil Swihart, another retired couple from Danville. Wil, a former mechanic for United Airlines, has been at the side of every child's parent throughout the long hospital ordeals. Gloria, a former state employee, joined him in Hershey, Penn., hospital earlier this month as two children, a 19-year-old and a 1-year-old from Belgrade, underwent surgery for congenital heart problems.

"It's not enough to write a check," Gloria, 59, said, as she flipped through pictures of Sonja and Sanja, the two children. "You need to be in touch with the poor, to see it and feel it. That helps me put things in perspective."

"Just to give a child a chance, that's good," Wil, 62, said. "That's something you can't put a price tag on."

Others are rallying to the Rushdoonys' cause. Just this month, Community Presbyterian Church, where the Rushdoonys have attended for almost 10 years, raised almost $21,000 for the children's medical costs.

"Ours is a story of miracles - God's miracles," Vula said, her dark brown eyes wide beneath her short brown hair. Haig, his gray-white hair smooth above his glasses, smiled and nodded in agreement. "God didn't ask us to this. He doesn't need us. He can do everything on his own. This just put legs on our faith."