Local church, family part of miracle for Kenyan student

May 28, 2010

PLAINVIEW – The West Texas wind is whipping, but Edward Taragon is undaunted. Alongside teammate Hildon Boen, he sets a steady pace around the track at Wayland Baptist University’s Hilliard Field, moving in smooth strides that cause his leg muscles to tighten and his heart to beat faster. There’s even a faint line of sweat forming on his brow, despite the cooler temperatures and windy spring afternoon.

Running has always been a way of life for Taragon. A native of Kenya in West Africa, Edward knew that if he was fast enough, he could run for an American college, earning his university diploma, and leading to a better life back home for him and his family, who are farmers of potatoes and maize in a community with a large number of Christians. 

But an amazing set of circumstances nearly one year ago nearly sidelined Taragon from running track forever, or at least at the collegiate level. But with help from a Plainview couple and their church, he’s been able to take it all in stride. Literally.

New challenges

It’s been a few years since Edward first set foot on U.S. soil, coming first to California to run track for a college there. During a routine physical there, doctors found a hole in Taragon’s heart, but no one instructed him to quit running.

“I thought I was 100% healthy,” Taragon said. “I ran regularly and usually felt fine.”

After a semester, though, the coach sent Taragon to Texas to run for Coach Brian Whitlock at Wayland in January 2009. He’d begun training for the indoor track season which was soon to begin when Wayland sent him for a physical as well. The news wasn’t good: there was indeed a hole, and if Edward continued to train at the same level, it might cause more damage to his heart.

For Taragon’s own safety, Whitlock had to break the bad news. Wayland could not let him run and risk further damage or even death. And since his education was tied to his track scholarship, he’d have to find a way to pay the difference if he wanted to stay on at the university. Both sets of news were devastating to Taragon.

That’s when Wayland and Debbie Richardson stepped in.

“He called us just crying, saying they were going to send him home,” said Debbie. “So we came to get him and find out what happened.”

The Richardsons had known Edward only a few months, introduced when he began attending Plainview’s Colonial Baptist Church with track teammate Bradley Sell and ended up in their college Sunday school class. Drawn to Taragon’s faithfulness and sweet spirit, the Richardsons bonded instantly with the small Kenyan and he soon became an extension of their family.

Edward had a very different upbringing in the bush of Kenya, where his family lived in thatched-roof huts without running water and hunted with bamboo spears. But that diversity only added to his charm as his positive attitude and smile made an impression on the Richardsons.

“Everything is just so new to him. It has humbled us and our whole family,” said Wayland, a longtime employee of Xcel Energy, noting that the couple’s grown children and grandchildren have even welcomed Edward as an adopted brother of sorts. “We believe God brought him here to us because of the route he came to get here. Our mission field came to us.”

Edward and a few other Kenyan runners who came to Wayland became regular fixtures at the Richardson home and even accompanied them on short trips out of town. They enjoyed providing him with new experiences and sights unlike anything he had seen. Debbie cooked regularly and let the boys cook traditional Kenyan meals for their family, involving them in holidays, family reunion trips and other adventures. 

“When everyone else went home for Spring Break, Edward stayed here. He had no means of transportation, so we’d get to where we picked him up every night and he’d go with us wherever we went,” Debbie recalled. “He’s so genuine, so loving and so sincere. And so grateful for everything.”

Making a plan

Little did Taragon know at the time exactly how grateful he’d become to the Richardsons, his American church and a bunch of strangers who helped him get past a difficult hurdle. When Debbie got that tearful phone call from Edward about the heart defect, the scholarship and his education status, she sprung into action. The family spoke to the church and raised the money to keep Edward in school for the semester, then set out to find out what could be done medically for the Kenyan runner.

Surgery was indeed an option, and doctors said repairs typically were very successful. But as an international student, Taragon had no insurance to cover the expensive procedures. The hospital agreed to do the surgery if he could at least come up with the down payment; then payments could be made until the balance was paid.

When he called home to let his parents know of the situation, Taragon said they were befuddled by the $26,000 price tag on the surgery.

“They didn’t know what to do about it,” he said. “But their second reaction was to give everything to God because they couldn’t do anything about it. They were so thankful about how people have treated me here and they know I’m safe.” 

Meanwhile, his “American parents” were putting feet to their own faith on behalf of Edward.

“We sent emails asking for prayer, and we knew God would provide,” Debbie said. “We put some money in of our own, then challenged the church and the community to match the money for Edward’s surgery. We shared his story with everyone we knew and a lot of people gave.”

The church came through, rallying to Edward’s cause. Even the Richardsons’ grandchildren opted to save their allowances for four months and donated to Taragon’s medical fund. Wayland and Debbie were awed by the generosity they found everywhere around them. Soon, the down payment was raised and the two-hour, arthroscopic surgery was scheduled for June 29, 2009. A pre-op session with the pediatric cardiologist found the situation even more miraculous.

“The cardiologist said it was a common pediatric problem but was usually repaired while a child was a few months old,” Debbie recalled. “He said Edward shouldn’t be alive and he sure shouldn’t be running cross country and breaking records.”

Debbie and Wayland documented much of the visit, the surgery and recovery to send home to Edward’s family, and they kept a solid prayer chain going for the months leading up to and after the procedure.

 Taragon admits he had plenty of anxiety himself. He worried that the surgery would have to be done open-heart, which might end his running career permanently and, by extension, his chance at an American education. He’d already settled on a major in mathematics with plans to pursue a career in structural engineering he can use to improve his home country. But peace soon prevailed.

“Prayer really helped me. At home, my source was God, and I came all the way here, so I knew he’d help me,” Taragon said. “The church helped give me the courage also by telling me everything was going to be OK.”

A new heart

When the fateful day finally arrived, the Richardsons delivered Edward to the hospital in Lubbock for the procedure. If all went well, the doctor said he’d be out of surgery in two hours.

Ninety minutes later, the doctor emerged with good news.

“He said it could not have gone more perfectly,” Debbie said, beaming. “God really did it. The hole was one-and-a-half inch diameter.”

When Taragon began to regain consciousness in the recovery room, he wasn’t even sure the surgery had yet taken place. When told it had and he would be able to run again, he was excited.

“He immediately wanted to pray and thank God,” Debbie said. So they did.

Taragon’s family – both in Kenya and his adopted family here – as well as the church was elated at the success of the procedure and the prognosis of the doctor that with some recovery time, he would likely be running again.

But the matter of his outstanding hospital bill remained. The Richardsons had vowed that if they had to pay the bill off themselves, a little each month, they would. In their eyes, it was a worthwhile investment.

“He just wanted to get his education and go back and tell his people about Jesus,” Debbie said.

Getting back to full speed would take a while for Edward, though, even with his otherwise healthy state. For the first few months, he had to take it easy and lay off even the jogging. Then in November, the doctor cleared Taragon to begin jogging for no more than 20 minutes at a time. The Richardsons got him a bicycle to get some exercise without the great exertion of running and work his way back to full strength.

In December, the doctor released him to run competitively again, noting that his EKGs were normal and by all accounts the surgery had been successful. Edward immediately began training in his running, hoping to secure a spot back on the Wayland track team and prove to the coaches he was truly an asset. 

His first race on January 23, held at Texas Tech, he placed first in the 5,000-meter run with a time of 15:14.72, qualifying him for the national meet. Then on Feb. 6 at the next meet, he placed second, beating his own time by four seconds. He placed 17th at the nationals preliminary race for the 5000-meter.

With more time to train, Taragon has qualified for the outdoor nationals meet as well, in the 5,000-meter run as well as the 10,000 and the 3,000. He planned to stay with the 5,000-meter race for the outdoor meet, which began May 27 and wrapped up just three days before his 25th birthday.

However, Taragon ran the 3,000-meter steeplechase event – one he never ran before the conference championships a month ago – and won the preliminary heat. He was scheduled to run the finals on Saturday, May 29.

But Debbie said Edward had a moment of fear just before that January meet, even with the doctor’s assurance he would be OK to run.

“He was a little uneasy the night before, so we prayed together,” she said. “I told him, ‘Don’t you think if you were running with a hole in your heart and God was holding you that he wouldn’t let you go now that it’s fixed?’”

The miracle continues

While Edward was getting back to normal on his running schedule and training for the Wayland track team, the Richardsons were continuing to faithfully make payments to the hospital for the procedure. Then one day, Edward came over with a letter from a collection agency and the couple set out to investigate the situation.

“I called Covenant to check on the account and they could not find the records right off, so she said she’d have to look into it,” Debbie recalls. “I called back the next day and the lady had dug everything up and said that someone had paid the entire hospital bill, about $20,000.

“I just burst out crying.”

The hospital couldn’t share who the anonymous benefactor had been, but save for the anesthesiologist bill, the majority of the surgery has been paid. Debbie said she kept the news to herself for a few days but finally couldn’t stand it.

“We told him there at church, and he couldn’t believe it,” Wayland said.

“I thanked God for sure,” Edward said with his usual quiet demeanor. “I just couldn’t believe the love of people, especially for someone like me that didn’t know anyone here.”

The church and community have helped with Taragon’s tuition for the semester and are hoping he can get back on scholarship with WBU track, finish his education and return to Kenya to make a difference for others, paying forward the kindness he’s found here in America.

“He feels like this is his home and he wants to stay here,” Wayland said. “His love for America is so refreshing. Our kids, to some degree, have no clue what we have and how little the rest of the world has. They realize now how much their money can help someone.”

While Edward has definitely been blessed by his association with Colonial Baptist Church, the Richardsons and his Wayland experience, the couple will be the first to say they’re the ones most enriched.

“We just love the young man. He makes my heart happy and my eyes water,” Wayland Richardson laughs. “It’s just too much God. He’s orchestrated all this.”

Debbie, whom Edward calls “Mum,” concurs.

“I truly know without a doubt that he was placed here for us to help. In the process, he has blessed us so much,” Debbie said. “Our lives will never be the same again, that’s for sure.”