“Mongolia. I’ve always wanted to go to Mongolia.” With those fateful words Dr. Eric Sandler set in motion this medical mission to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, in memory of Jonathan Soud. Jonathan passed away from complications arising from leukemia on September 18, 2010, just a few months after having been diagnosed with the disease.
This improbable tale of Jonathan, Eric, and Mongolia begins with Jonathan’s long-time interest in geography, which he had developed from the time he was small. Once he was old enough to play with Duplos and Legos, Jonathan would spend hours entertaining himself by building “cities” on the coffee table in our great room, full of the tall buildings that so fascinated him. One of his favorite books was 100 Cities of the World. As he grew a little older, this interest developed into a love of maps and atlases, which he would spend hours poring over. Once he became computer literate and discovered Google Maps and Google Earth, he latched onto Street View, using it to “drive” up and down the highways and byways of Prague, or of Stockholm, or even of Nuuk. (For the uninformed, Nuuk is the capital of Greenland, boasting a population of some 15,000 hardy souls.) By the time he entered 6th grade in the fall of 2009, Jonathan already knew all about Mongolia. As his Geography teacher, Marty Coyne, relates, he and Jonathan would joke about the name Ulaanbaatar, which sounds so unusual to Western ears. Jonathan had a great 6th-grade year—he was named to his school’s Honor Council and won the Beginning Band Award as a clarinetist.
But during the last month of 6th grade Jonathan began complaining of jaw pain. After multiple visits to the dentist and the orthodontist, it became evident that Jonathan had developed something serious. On May 29, the dentist suggested that it might possibly be leukemia. After that news of a potentially life-threatening illness, Jonathan came home and watched his favorite television show, Globe Trekker. That day’s episode was on, of all places, Mongolia, and, sick as he was, Jonathan became even more fascinated by the place. Three months later, as he lay in a hospital bed and Eric administered a round of chemo through Jonathan’s Ommaya Reservoir, the topic of Globe Trekker and Mongolia came up. That was when Eric said, “Mongolia. I’ve always wanted to go to Mongolia.” That magic moment constitutes the beginning of this endeavor.
As it turns out, years earlier Dr. Rita Browning, a missionary to Mongolia, had contacted Eric about coming there to train local physicians how to treat childhood blood cancers, specifically leukemia. Eric applied for a Gates Foundation grant for the project, but the costs of the medicines proved prohibitive. Shortly after Jonathan passed away, however, we approached Eric about making his dream to do medical mission work in Mongolia a reality. Using the funds donated to Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jonathan’s memory, in 2012 a team of three medical personnel went to Mongolia and work in the hospital there to train Mongolian doctors about how to treat pediatric cancers. In addition to Eric, nurse Sally Hendricks and pharmacist John Ng were part of that first team. Jonathan’s father (Steve) and surviving sister Natalie and brother Paul, along with Eric’s youngest son Justin, accompanied the medical staff at their own expense to work in the orphanage that Dr. Browning established in Ulaanbaatar. A second team, led by Eric, returned to Mongolia in 2013; a third, led by Cindy Gauger (another of Jonathan’s doctors) went to Mongolia in July of 2014.
During his stay in the hospital of over 100 consecutive days, Jonathan Soud touched the lives of many members of the staff at Wolfson. (See the commentaries of nurse Lindsay Jamison and resident Ameneh Ebadi.) Though he was only 12, Jonathan’s warm smile and caring personality made a difference in the world, and his sense of adventurous travel lives on in this mission. Strange as it sounds, there is no better way to honor Jonathan than to help the children of Mongolia.